Here Comes the Sun
Our southwest’s deserts offer promise for solar power development. They also boast incredible biodiversity. New initiatives are looking to tap into the vast energy potential without threatening the wildlife and plants that depend on this fragile landscape.
The Mojave Desert turned a stupefying green in June. After a cold, wet spring, a miniature forest of algae and moss sprouted out of the desert’s “cryptobiotic” crust—literally, the “soil of hidden life.” Little leaves on the mesquite and creosote pulsed with color, and the thick Joshua tree forest that grows out of the limestone formation at Cima Dome, a botanical marvel on the northern edge of the Mojave National Preserve, shimmered like an emerald city. The evening mist that settled each day into the pockets among the tall granite mountains made the Mojave look like nothing so much as Ireland.
In other years, when the rain comes just right and the cold subsides earlier, the Mojave goes manic with color. Pale violet asters blanket slopes, while yellow marigolds and white pincushions drench the bajadas. Dark pink blooms explode from barrel cactuses, deep orange flowers emerge from beavertail tips, and white-blossomed stems shoot up from the yucca. In such flower-filled springs, endangered desert tortoises wander among the plants, stuffing their jaws with color. Even in less fruitful years, bighorn sheep and bobcats eke out a living here, and oases like Harper Dry Lake Marsh, located at the edge of one of the largest dry lakebeds in the Mojave, serve as important resting sites for thousands of migrating birds, including black-necked stilts and American avocets.
Yet because visitors don’t see much plant life—some seeds may lay dormant for a century or more before germinating—and little wildlife emerges in the heat of the day, there’s a common misconception that the desert is a biodiversity wasteland. “Fifty to 80 percent of the [plant] species composition is only observable maybe 20 percent of the years,” explains botanist Jim André, director of the University of California’s Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, located in the Mojave National Preserve. Certain areas in the Mojave have “a plant species diversity comparable to what you’d find in the primeval redwood forest,” says André, adding that “if we were 600 feet tall, that primeval redwood forest would look barren to us, too.”
In the seemingly empty desert Southwest, from the Mojave south to the Colorado Desert, a subset of the larger Sonoran Desert that extends down to Mexico, civilized society locates what it doesn’t want in suburban neighborhoods—from a U.S. Air Force base that remote-controls unmanned predator drones to the proposed nuclear waste storage site in Yucca Mountain. Now a solar energy boom is driving developers to these deserts, where tens of thousands of acres are slated for industrial-scale solar development. The flurry of activity began in 2005, when the federal Energy Policy Act called for 10,000 megawatts of non-hydropower renewable energy on public lands within a decade—almost enough to displace all the power plants that supply electricity to New York City. Then came California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s executive order that required utilities to obtain one-third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, which the state legislature made law this year.
Increasingly, environmentalists, government agencies, and solar companies are working together to protect and conserve critical desert ecosystems while allowing for appropriate solar energy projects on degraded lands. No one convincingly makes the case that we can do without these utility-scale plants altogether. Covering home rooftops with solar panels could never completely offset carbon-huffing fossil fuels, and such small batches of power complicate efforts to maintain a steady flow of electricity. Meanwhile, computers and, soon, electric cars will relentlessly strain an already sagging grid.
Continuing to rely on fossil fuels to fulfill our growing energy needs will only accelerate climate change and spur the destruction of habitat to get at untapped reserves. The solution, stakeholders say, is a balancing act. To cut greenhouse-gas emissions and protect critical habitat on the ground, we must “do conservation planning at the same time that you do development planning for renewable energy,” says Garry George, Audubon California’s renewable energy project director. “Because the two really have the same goal: To help species survive.”
During the solar rush’s first few years, developers focused on finding the best spots for solar radiation, not on how scraping clean thousands of acres of desert floor in a particular area might affect vulnerable flora and fauna. Global climate change was their chief environmental concern. “The mantra back then was, ‘Let’s build it as fast as we can because that’s the right thing to do,’ ” says Dan Taylor, director of public policy for Audubon California.
Three projects that were planned back then are currently under way. All were permitted in a hurry—receiving the green light from California in its haste to hit its 2020 renewable energy targets, as well as from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which fast-tracked projects likely to meet a December 2010 deadline to qualify for stimulus funds. The developments include Solar Millennium’s Blythe Solar Power Project, an 11-square-mile concentrating solar thermal plant near the California–Arizona border. It will employ troughs of mirrors to focus solar heat on a liquid until it flashes into gas and spins turbines. A similar plant, NextEra Energy’s Genesis Project, will occupy 2.8 square miles about 20 miles west of the Blythe plant. And Oakland-based BrightSource Energy has begun construction on its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which will cover 5.6 square miles of the Mojave near California’s border with Nevada. Its concentrating solar thermal technology relies on a vast field of mirrors called “heliostats” to focus sunlight on a water-filled tower.