Can We Transition to Renewable Energy Without Destroying More Desert?

Earlier this week I wrote about the renewable energy industry's complaints that desert conservation was slowing the deployment of utility-scale solar and wind projects.  The newspaper article that gave these industry complaints a soapbox described renewable energy development on public lands as "slowed to a crawl."  New projects proposals may have slowed down for economic reasons that were buried in the article, but public and private lands in our deserts have been significantly transformed over the past few years.

One of three Ivanpah Solar power towers glares in the distance, while construction on the Stateline Solar project can be seen beyond that.  Mojave yucca and creosote bush-studded terrain is replaced with several square miles of utility-scale energy projects.

Industry lobbyists want us to assume that we cannot reach our goal of 100% renewable energy without destroying intact desert wildlands.  Over the past few years we learned why this cannot be allowed, and why it is not true: 1.) Building large-scale wind and solar on wildlands comes at a great ecological cost.  2.)  Renewable energy technology is flexible, and we can find places to capture energy from the wind and sun without destroying wildlands.

Renewable Energy on Desert Wildlands an Ecological Disaster

Some of the projects built in the desert since 2008, such as the projects in the Ivanpah Valley, destroyed valuable habitat and continue to harm wildlife.  Dozens of desert tortoises were displaced or killed there, a wildlife corridor destroyed, and the Ivanpah Solar power towers create super-heated air that continues to burn birds alive.   All of the solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley were built on public lands.

Not far from the Ivanpah Valley, multiple solar projects replaced intact desert wildlands in Nevada's El Dorado Valley.  Most of these projects were built on private lands, but portions of the project infrastructure and transmission lines crossed public land.  Nevertheless, the lands were mostly intact desert habitat before they were bulldozed to make way for solar panels.  And the sea of dark solar panels can appear as a body of water to some resident and migrating birds, leading to their death or injury as they fly off course only to find themselves in an industrial zone.  This is known as the "lake effect," and is evident in the photo below by Basin and Range Watch of one of the projects in the El Dorado Valley.

Photo by Basin and Range Watch of the "lake effect" that can confuse birds at the Copper Mountain Solar project in Nevada's El Dorado Valley.

You can see below how much the El Dorado Valley has changed since 2008, when we first started seeing a rush of utility-scale renewable energy development in the desert southwest.

Projects on Already-Disturbed Lands Growing Faster

Others solar projects were built on already-disturbed lands, such as land already converted to agricultural or industrial use.  Lots of attention has been focused on the environmental damage done by projects on intact desert habitat, but developers have been able to build projects on already-disturbed lands much more quickly and with fewer hurdles.

These solar projects are usually better than unleashing bulldozers on intact desert wildlands and typically use less water than agriculture would, but they are not without their impacts.  They can still cause harm to resident or migratory birds, and if the soil beneath the solar panels is disturbed it can lead to significant amounts of wind-blown dust that can cause respiratory problems.

Nonetheless, the rapid development of utility-scale solar on already-disturbed lands is a major argument against the need to give industry access to any intact desert habitat.

The images below show the transformation of just one corner of the Antelope Valley, which is in the western reaches of the Mojave Desert.  Most of the projects below were built on lands previously used for agriculture.

The Imperial Valley region south of the Salton Sea has also seen a lot of large-scale solar development, replacing agriculture with energy generation.  The images below show the Mount Signal area, with at least 266 megawatts of solar panel capacity installed.

But the Mount Signal area is not alone in the Imperial Valley.  Solar projects continue to replace agriculture.

Wind projects, regardless of whether they are built on intact wildlands or already-disturbed lands, can have far-reaching ecological impacts.  That's because they intrude into the airspace used by birds and bats.  Raptors hunting for prey in the fields below do not see the spinning blades of a wind turbine, and studies indicate that some wind projects can have significant impacts on bat populations.

Wind projects in the western Mojave Desert near the towns of Tehachapi and Mojave now cover over 70 square miles of the region.   The photo below shows just one small segment of what is known as the Alta Wind Energy Center.  The wind projects disturb less of the land - you can see the turbine pads and connecting roads as lines across the desert - but the giant turbine blades sweeping across airspace used by birds and bats is less evident in satellite imagery.

A More Sustainable Path

As California considers its next steps toward eliminating fossil fuel-fired power plants, we should consider the rapidly developing technologies that allow us not only to generate renewable energy, but to do so in a sustainable fashion.  Solar on rooftops and over parking lots.  Investments in energy efficiency.  Battery technology to capture the excess solar energy generated during the day. 

Tesla battery solutions are helping utility companies cut the need for new power plants or transmission lines.  Replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs is saving people money and cutting down on electricity demand.   As I write this, California alone has installed over 5,300 megawatts of solar panels on rooftops. Los Angeles County alone has the space available for as much as 22,000 megawatts of solar panel capacity on rooftops.

Just look around you.  The sun shines on that rooftop or on that parking lot just as it does in the desert.  We can transition to clean energy without destroying wildlife habitat.

Solar panels cover rooftops and parking lots at schools, warehouses, churches, and homes.


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