Big Solar Projects Are Still Being Built in the Wrong Places

New research finds more than half of California’s solar power plants are on sensitive desert lands that are home to imperiled wildlife.
(Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Oct 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Despite efforts to keep large-scale solar power plants out of California’s pristine deserts, more than half of current or planned commercial projects are in those environmentally sensitive places, a new study has found.

“We saw case studies about the adverse impact on habitat, but this is really the first time that we’ve looked at these patterns in the aggregate,” said Rebecca Hernandez, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral ecological scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“Developers and stakeholders were prioritizing the worst places for…utility-scale development and not prioritizing areas that were more logical and smart in terms of benefiting the environment,” she said.

Using “large swaths of space” for solar energy in undeveloped areas “may exacerbate habitat fragmentation resulting in direct and indirect ecological consequences,” according to the study, which was published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers looked at 161 current or proposed solar farms and found that 233 square miles of fragile desert area were dedicated to large-scale solar energy projects, compared with 73 square miles of farmland and 44 square miles of developed land.

Many of the sites on undeveloped land are near state and national parks, which can be directly affected by habitat degradation in surrounding areas. These sites also tend to be far from cities, requiring the construction of large power lines through other desert areas.

The findings are particularly challenging given California’s ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and to obtain half its electricity from renewable sources by that year. The installation of solar facilities in undeveloped areas increases greenhouse emissions through soil disturbance and vegetation removal while also impeding animal migration and crowding out flora and fauna—including desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, fringe-toed lizards, and other rare species, according to the study.

For years, some environmentalists have fought to block solar plants they contend harm imperiled wildlife, such as the desert tortoise. In an attempt to defuse those tensions, the United States Bureau of Land Management in 2012 finalized the Western Solar Plan, which covers six states and, according to the agency, “allows the permitting of future solar energy development projects on public lands to proceed in a more efficient, standardized, and environmentally responsible manner.”

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So why are so many solar farms being built where they are least appropriate?

Helen O’Shea, director of the Western Renewable Energy Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said many large solar plants were approved before planning efforts began to locate them on already disturbed land. “Some of them are in places that might not be optimal,” she said.

Next month, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a state-federal effort to minimize big solar power plants’ environmental impact, will finalize regulations for building renewable energy projects on public lands, O’Shea said. Regulations for private land will follow at a later date.

“One takeaway from this study is that it actually highlights why it’s so important to have planning efforts like the DRECP,” O’Shea said. “It identifies places that should be completely off the table and need to be protected permanently and areas that are more appropriate for development.”

One surprising finding from the study was that nearly 30 percent of large-scale solar projects have been built on cropland and pastures, mostly in the state’s vast Central Valley. Many were installed on farmland suffering from the state’s ongoing drought or contaminated with salt after decades of irrigation.

Farmland will likely continue to relieve some of the pressure placed on desert areas, O’Shea said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s build here—let’s not just look to the desert,’ which is fragile and incredibly biodiverse.”