Solar Energy – a double-edged Sword?

Many acres of land in the California deserts and environs are covered in solar panels and wind farms.   Green energy – win- win right? Not so fast; there are a few factors to take into consideration. Do I dare play devils’ advocate here? Environmentalists are finding themselves in the awkward position of having to choose between clean energy and conserving fragile arid ecology .

(The photo on the right was taken April 1st – however in a few weeks the grasses will dry up and the flowers will disappear.)

Just as wetlands and marshes were considered useless swamps to be filled and “reclaimed” decades ago, deserts are often viewed as worthless land. In fact many desert areas are surprisingly pristine, supporting a unique and delicately balanced ecosystem, and paving them for development or solar panels is a mistake, especially when already-disturbed sites exist as alternatives. I  can’t understand why rooftops and existing infrastructure are not being considered as the first option; an advantage to siting near electricity users is the reduced need for new transmission lines and the decrease in energy lost in transport, both of which reduce costs. I’m looking into solar panels on our roof now that it is economically viable. Utilities however aren’t keen on buying electricity from their customers – they want the energy and the cash to flow in the other direction.

Carrizo Plains, just northwest of the Mojave Desert is one of the sunniest places in California and thus exploited by the solar power industry. While not really a desert in itself, it is an arid environment with an average elevation of about 2,200 ft (700 m).   No trees grow there and the annual rainfall is less than 9 inches (230 mm) per year.

It did support ranches back when ranchers regularly moved herds between these winter grazing areas to the higher, cooler slopes for summer.

This ranch has water - the old windmill is still working

This ranch has water – the old windmill is still working. Note the for sale sign – land has become more valuable over the years.  (Although one realtor’s ad, showing pictures like these, failed to mention how miserably hot and dry the summers can be.)

If you look closely, beyond the old ranch shack  (below) you can see a dark line in the distance which is part of a solar farm. Those are tumbleweeds in the foreground.

Carrizo Pl. tumbleweed_ps1196

Soda Lake a 3,000-acre (12 km2) ephemeral lake lies in the middle of the plain; the creek draining into Soda Lake is dry most of the year. The lake itself is often gone by mid-summer, but this year due to the drought, it was already dry when I visited in early April . Normally it attracts migratory birds, but they had to fly farther to find water the last two winters. A dazzling white crust is what remains from the evaporation of mineralized water.

Soda Lake and the Carrizo Plains in the background.

Soda Lake(dry)  and the Carrizo Plains in the background.

Soda Lake a few years ago. - predrought. ( fr. Jack Elliot's blog)

Soda Lake a few years ago – pre-drought. ( fr. Jack Elliot’s blog)

 

The Carrizo Plains is home to astonishingly diverse communities of wildlife and plant species. 13 different species are listed as endangered, the largest concentration of endangered species in California. The desert tortoise is one; other species include the pronghorn antelope, Tule elk, burrowing owls, coyote, desert cottontail and the San Joaquin kit fox.

Kit Fox - cute isn't he?

Kit Fox – cute isn’t he?

Pronghorn antelope (fr. jack elliott)

Pronghorn antelope (fr. Jack Elliott)

Because of this biodiversity, it has been called the state’s Serengeti. The site is famous for its spring wildflower displays and the largest native grassland surviving in California. (From a personal standpoint I already miss the wildflowers that have been lost to acres of projects.)

Disclosure! All of the photos in the slide show below were taken in spring when the desert and surrounding areas are looking their best.. Most of the flowers last only a month… or two if there is spring rain. Southern California (really most of California ) gets the bulk of rain in the winter; showers the rest of the year are rare and fleeting.

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The Carrizo Plains became home to the largest photovoltaic array in the world in the 1980’s when Arco bought 177-acres (0.7 km2) of ranchland. Another solar farm was constructed by Ausra on an adjacent 640 acres. Neither were able to compete with fossil fuels, but as solar recently became economically viable, a third party Topaz Solar, bought Ausra and minimized the use of land. Topaz began operation in November.

topaz_oli_2015002above:Topaz Solar Farm from space Earth Observatory image, 2015 (on Wikipedia).  Below, an aerial  shot of another solar farm, this one in the southern Mojave Desert.

Jamey Stillings Time mag.

photo by J. Stillings for Time mag.

The sheer size of these projects results in habitat loss and fragmentation making it more difficult for wildlife to find food, water, shelter, mates, and protection from predators.   During and after construction the area becomes a dust bowl due to removal of vegetation. Solar projects have also been criticized for killing large numbers of migratory birds coming south for the winter. Some crash into the reflective panels they assume is a body of water. Others birds are burned to death in midair, along with insects and hundreds of butterflies, by the scorching CSPs (Concentrated Solar Power).

Wildlife and plant life everywhere are already affected by climate change so the destruction of vegetation and habitat is a major impact, important for us to minimize and mitigate. One way would be to develop renewable energy projects on already disturbed or degraded lands like brownfields, abandoned mines, or landfills.

We need to encourage the development of green energy, but not view it as a panacea. (I haven’t researched wind power, but it also takes up huge amounts of land and kills an astounding number of birds.) There is no free lunch. Everything is a trade-off and must be considered carefully to weigh the best options.

What do you think? Where do you stand? Have an opinion? Weigh in!

Sources: Wikipedia, California Native Plant Society, Time Magazine; US Fish and Wildlife :http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=C04L      ;Bureau of Land Management: http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/content/ca/en/prog/energy/pendingapps.html http://www.defenders.org/sites/default/files/publications/making_renewable_energy_wildlife_friendly.pdf

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11 thoughts on “Solar Energy – a double-edged Sword?

  1. Hi
    I live in a condo that claimed to be a green building and an energy conscious building. We had a roof top windmill. This was removed shortly after it was erected because it fell down a couple of times and damaged cars below. Luckily no one was hurt or killed.
    Hope you are well.

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  2. The bottom line for utilities is that they lose money with mandated buybacks from residents and businesses with solar panels. They can produce or buy wholesale power cheaper and they also make more money on their own large scale solar projects. Some (US) states impose fees on solar users and caps on buybacks (net metering) – maybe that is fair if it will encourage solar in the right places and be win-win for all concerned.

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  3. Desert wildlife tends to be crepuscular or nocturnal, especially during hot dry weather. But the host of small mammals, birds, herps, and invertebrates that do live in the desert, such as Cactus Wrens and Black-throated Sparrows, deserve some consideration. Solar panels require cooling and cleaning, so really are inappropriate where water is scarce. We need to concentrate our energy production in cities, where it it most used. Solar panels do little harm on big box store rooftops and houses, and wind turbines in cornfields are already a big thing in Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana. Why not put wind turbines along wide interstate medians, too?

    The problem really comes down to our national mindset that any corporation deserves to make as much money as possible, no matter what the price on the natural treasures we all share. The same powerful corporate influences that stymied production of electric cars and efficient mass transportation are the ones making the decisions with regard to energy, too. And people in America seem to have forgotten what democratic rule is really all about, feeling powerless to change things.

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    • Laura – Thanks for stopping by and adding your insights. Glad you agree on the placement of solar panels in cities – it seems a no brainer if people will think it out – but yes it probably has a lot to do with money and politics.
      Always good to hear from a birder! (BTW many of the birds, if not most are migratory, heading south for the winter – and then back north for the warmer months.) I’ll be posting another bird article in the next couple of weeks.

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  4. Oh dear this is so tricky and I don’t have any answers. In general I support wind turbine and solar power projects in preference to Nuclear or coal power stations, but there is a worry about the land they sit on. I have seen solar farms here in England with sheep grazing underneath the panels, but they would not be allowed in any of the areas of scientific interest.

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    • I think coal is as bad, or worse than nuclear, so we’re on the same page there. The panels I have seen are sited close together and low to the ground thus blocking out most rain and light so vegetation soon withers (and sheep might have to crawl in some cases to get underneath!) – is it different in England?

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  5. On the engineering side there are also challenges. The big one is WATER. Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants need to be cooled, just like traditional power plants, and that takes Lots of Water. Otherwise I think spacious deserts are not a bad place to site solar projects – I prefer to see them to wind turbines.
    I might like Laura’s idea of putting wind turbines along wide interstate medians however.

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    • Due to the dusty environment, solar panels also need to be cleaned almost daily to remain efficient – requiring more water. If water was plentiful in the desert….it wouldn’t be a desert. 😉

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  6. Why the high deserts, Jan? I was thinking the low ones (hotter and perhaps less water) might be less hospitable to wildlife… or do you mean high as in Nevada vs. where California deserts meet the foothills?

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  7. I’m not sure about California but having driven across Nevada and Utah – there are so many miles of desert that could probably be used for solar and wind farms with minimum damage to wildlife (for example there is no wildlife to speak of on the Bonneville Salt Flats) The high deserts and not the low ones are probably the better places for solar farms still you do have the very real issue of dust storms. There aren’t any easy solutions!

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