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 .

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