In areas of the Mojave that are ecologically intact, renewable energy development poses a major problem for plants, animals, and other species. Some major issues include: habitat destruction and fragmentation, water use, and bird mortality.

Interview with Sophie Parker of The Nature Conservancy

Sophie Parker | The Nature Conservancy

Tell us about The Nature Conservancy and its role with renewable energy in California and specifically the Mojave Desert.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The California Program has protected nearly 1.5 million acres of spectacular landscape as well as 3.8 million acres of sea floor. 

In the Mojave Desert, we are tackling renewable energy siting issues to direct future development to already degraded lands, researching wind turbine impacts to birds like the California condor and golden eagles, and addressing groundwater depletion from solar facilities. In 2010 we completed the Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment. It provides a map of conservation values throughout the Mojave Desert in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. This map is being used by decision-makers to help guide renewable energy development to lands that have lower conservation value, and that are potentially less ecologically risky to develop.

Why is there an increased demand for renewable energy?

The increased demand for renewable energy originates from several separate but related arenas. Politically, there is a push from states and the federal government to generate electricity from renewable sources; in California for example, a Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) program requires that utilities serve 33% of their load with renewable energy by 2020. Meanwhile, the Great Recession has spurred a strong interest in both job creation and the domestic production of energy, concerns that could be addressed in part through renewable energy development. Finally, with a slowly gathering acceptance of the reality of climate change, people have become interested in large-scale solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and renewable energy production is seen as important part of that picture.

What are some of the environmental concerns with the development of renewable energies like wind and solar in the Mojave desert?

When wind and solar technologies are deployed on a large scale, they can have significantly negative environmental impacts. From a conservation perspective, the majority of the Mojave Desert is currently in very good condition; the region provides intact habitat for a wide variety of species, and its ecosystem processes are largely unaltered by human activities. In areas of the Mojave that are ecologically intact, renewable energy development poses a major problem for plants, animals, and other species. Some major issues include: habitat destruction and fragmentation, water use, and bird mortality.

Solar installations not only require large areas of land to collect sufficient energy for electrical production, they also disturb and in some cases completely eliminate the plant community on site (and therefore, eliminate the habitat for animals). This is a problem for the species within the project area, and can provide serious issues for migratory and wide-ranging species that travel through the area. Renewable energy facilities are often ringed by security fencing, which makes them impassible to wildlife. The grading of roads and flat areas for facilities and/or panel or mirror installation contributes to soil erosion, which negatively impacts air and water quality. They also provide avenues for the invasion of non-native plant species, which pose a significant risk to biodiversity.

Some solar installations are problematic from the perspective of the water they use. Parabolic trough and power tower plants require water to convert to steam that powers the turbine to generate electricity. This technology requires a source of water to replace water lost in the system, and to wash mirrors to maintain high efficiency. If wet cooling is used, water is also required for the cooling towers in amounts similar to conventional steam plants. While the sun’s energy may be harnessed in the Mojave Desert, great energy could be expended to pump water from the Sacramento River Delta to Mojave Desert to allow the power plant to function. Local desert aquifers store water that is renewed very slowly over time, and is over-drafted in a number of locations. Any overdraft of groundwater that endangers the availability of shallow subsurface waters or springs has dire consequences for the plants and animals of the desert that depend on these rare water resources.

Wind facilities typically require water only for the human crewmembers on site, and not for the functioning of the wind turbines themselves. They also have a smaller footprint, but the roads graded to access each turbine constitute a significant threat in terms of the fragmentation of habitat. The infrastructure associated with wind turbines, such as access roads and substations, can result in extensive disturbance to habitat and provide avenues for the invasion of exotic species. Bird and bat deaths are also a concern, both through direct collision, through barotrauma that occurs when they fly through areas of different air pressure created by spinning turbines.

What opportunities and challenges does renewable energy development pose for nature conservation in California?

The challenges posed for nature conservation by renewable energy are that development has significant environmental impacts as outlined above.  The opportunity is that the Mojave Desert contains more than enough vacant land that has already been disturbed to site all of the renewable energy we need. Also, disturbed areas are close to existing cities and towns, which could boost local employment and avoid the need for new, costly, and inefficient transmission lines. By incentivizing development in already disturbed locations, and providing stricter protections on high-quality, remote, and ecologically intact lands in the desert, conservation and renewable energy can both benefit.

How is The Nature Conservancy working to address these challenges?

The Nature Conservancy is using our strengths in science and collaboration to help developers, utilities, and government agencies make better choices about the siting of renewable energy in the Mojave Desert to avoid the highest value conservation lands. This smart planning approach is called “Development by Design” and has been employed with success in a variety of locations.

You recently had a delegation of Mongolian officials visit the Mojave.  What issues are they looking to address when it comes to renewable energy and what lessons did they learn from this trip?

The government of Mongolia faces some tough decisions about the Gobi Desert. Like the Mojave, the Gobi is a vast and wild landscape that provides the only habitat for a few extremely rare and endangered species. Most of the Gobi in Mongolia is publically owned, meaning that the Mongolian government will decide its fate. Currently, there is a strong and growing interest on the part of multi-national corporations in developing the Gobi Desert to harvest renewable resources, and to mine the region’s copper deposits, which are some of the richest in the world. These projects will not only fragment habitat and produce pollutants, but they will also use water, which is a scarce resource in any desert.

While traveling with The Nature Conservancy through the Mojave Desert, Mongolian government officials were able to visit both a wind and a solar energy facility to learn more about these technologies and the intensity and scale of the impacts generated by industrial-scale renewable power plants, and they visited lands managed by various public agencies such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Finally, they learned more about The Nature Conservancy’s approach to addressing the challenges posed by large-scale renewable energy development in the Mojave Desert, and how we are helping to inform decisions that will impact millions of acres of public lands and waters, and the biodiversity it supports, in the Southwest US.

What are some of the next big emerging issues happening around renewable energy?

We are concerned about the economic viability of renewable energy in the marketplace, given that the domestic production of oil and gas has increased recently due to fracking. We are also concerned about the long-term viability of renewable facilities, and the potential for large areas of land to be degraded with no intention of adapting and redeveloping older solar and wind development areas as renewable technologies become more advanced. 

 

About The Nature Conservancy
We're proud of what we've accomplished since our founding in 1951: The Nature Conservancy has protected more than 117 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide — and we operate more than 100 marine conservation projects globally. We have more than 1 million members and work in all 50 United States and more than 30 countries around the world — protecting habitats from grasslands to coral reefs, from Australia to Alaska to Zambia. 

About Sophie Parker
Sophie Parker is an ecologist working out of the Los Angeles office of The Nature Conservancy. She has provided scientific leadership and support on Conservancy projects and initiatives within the South Coast and Deserts of California since 2008. As a fifth generation southern Californian, Sophie’s career has focused on using science to protect ecologically important lands and waters throughout the southern region of the state. Sophie received her Ph.D. from the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at UC Santa Barbara in 2006. She has been both educator and mentor, serving as a guest speaker for undergraduate courses in geography and biology, teaching a lecture-based course in Environmental Ecology to 100 students, and leading small field-based ecology courses at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.


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