Large-Scale Solar Installations Can Threaten Natural Landscapes, Species, Habitats

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This article is the second in a series on the underreported costs of solar power. The first examined how large-scale solar projects are using high-quality farmland across America.

The Biden administration is considering a rule change that would discount costs for solar companies who want to use public lands. Meanwhile, biologists and activists are sounding the alarm about the dangers of large-scale solar projects for flora, fauna, and natural beauty throughout the country, especially in the deserts. 

The solar land rush, Kevin Emmerich explained, first hit the desert under President Barack Obama.

“He really wanted to put a lot of large-scale green energy on public lands,” said Emmerich, a former field biologist and National Park Service ranger, in an interview with The Epoch Times.

He and his wife, field biologist and artist Laura Cunningham, soon realized that arid land in the United States’ southwestern deserts—particularly the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin—was at risk of being taken up by utility-scale solar.

In 2008, they formed a non-profit, Basin & Range Watch, to resist what they saw as encroachment.

Emmerich said that much of the struggle had involved pushing back against the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) designations, which often identify the prospective sites of large solar farms as non-scenic. Under BLM’s Visual Resource Management (VRM) classification scheme, such areas are often slotted in the lowest class, Class IV.

“In the Mojave Desert, the perception of that is changing,” Emmerich said. “As the population grows, and as people are more mobile and drive out there from the bigger cities, fewer and fewer people actually believe there’s nothing else there.”

Epoch Times Photo
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, on Nov. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Today, the Biden administration is contemplating a rule change reminiscent of moves under the Obama administration.

Under the Energy Act of 2020—the same act that laid the groundwork for redefining fuel minerals such as uranium as non-critical minerals—BLM would lower both capacity fees and rental rates for wind and solar on public lands.

As with its response in 2008, Basin and Range Watch is opposed to this change and what it suggests about the government’s attitude toward the industry.

“We’re giving them a break because they’re the sacred solar developer,” Emmerich said.

He thought the new standard could also create a precedent for a future administration to lower the rates or fees for oil and gas exploration—something he also opposed.

While Emmerich’s concern about fossil fuel drilling was not uncommon in the environmental movement, Basin & Range frequently stood alone, or almost alone, when opposing solar and wind projects.

Many high-profile environmental groups were willing to see habitat taken up by solar, he said, “because it’s going to be impacted by climate change anyway.”

Under its “Smart from the Start” framework, the Wilderness Society emphasized the benefits of placing large solar installations on public lands, in part to realize its goal of “net zero emissions from public lands and waters.”

The Sierra Club, meanwhile, had endorsed BLM’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which could see hundreds of thousands of desert acres go to solar and wind energy projects.

The Epoch Times has reached out to the BLM for comment. The Epoch Times also sought comment on the BLM’s proposal from multiple environmental NGOs, including both the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.

Epoch Times Photo
A morning vista is seen from a ridgetop in the Trilobite Wilderness region of Mojave Trails National Monument near Essex, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2017. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Low Power Density, High Impact on Habitats

Scott Cashen, a field biologist in California who consulted on renewable energy projects, shared Emmerich’s concerns about the conservation of desert land.

“There was this big push to need a lot of big parcels of land, and the easiest place to look was in the desert,” he told The Epoch Times. “The desert was just getting destroyed. The first step is to come in with heavy equipment and scrape the site clean of anything living.”

One fundamental issue with solar power, said Cashen, was the great land use that it entailed. This meant it had a much lower power density than natural gas, nuclear, or other conventional power sources.

A 2018 article estimated that utility-scale photovoltaic solar had a power density of roughly 5.7 watts per square meter; natural gas, by contrast, had a power density of 482.1 watts per square meter, almost 85 times higher (though with a wide possible range).

Nuclear power clocked in at a power density of 240.8 watts per meter squared, over 42 times higher than utility-scale photovoltaic solar; while coal power, at 135.1 watts per square meter, had almost 24 times its counterpart’s power density.

In a 2010 primer on power densities, environmental scientist Vaclav Smil arrived at similar estimates.

Smil projected the conversion to renewable energies would require a staggeringly large power infrastructure, “spread over areas 10 to a 1000 times larger than today’s infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction, combustion and electricity generation.”

“Higher reliance on renewable energies may be desirable … but inherently low power densities of these conversions will require a new system of fuel and electricity supply that will be able to substitute for today’s dominant practices only after decades of gradual development,” Smil wrote.

“With that land area, we’re talking about massive amounts of habitat loss, and habitat fragmentation and degradation in general,” Cashen said.

In addition to the panels themselves, the disruptive new infrastructure for utility-scale solar could include everything from new substations and roads, to miles upon miles of additional transmission lines, a challenge only intensified if the solar installation was relatively far from the communities it served.

“People still think, ‘Oh, that product is made from 100 percent solar energy, I can feel good about buying this,’” Cashen said. “But that solar energy facility involved destroying thousands of acres of pristine desert environment. People just don’t know.”

Epoch Times Photo
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert in California on Feb. 20, 2014. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Emmerich echoed Cashen’s comments on power density: “The impact of a solar project is almost laughable to us, simply because it’s low-density energy.”

Cashen pointed out that the additional transmission lines increase fire risk, especially in wildfire-prone regions of California.

“California law requires a four-foot clearance around powerlines in areas at high risk of fire. For that reason, the significant new transmission infrastructure required for utility-scale solar can result in significant tree loss.”

Cashen noted that large installations can even influence the surrounding microclimate, potentially elevating the likelihood of a major fire. (In part one of this series, Arizona cotton farmer Nancy Caywood noted that temperatures on her property near a massive solar installation were far higher than temperatures elsewhere on the farm.)

The new transmission lines required for utility-scale solar also increased the risk of bird collisions, only exacerbating the major threat to avian life posed by solar installations themselves.

Solar power tower designs, a less common type of utility-scale solar design in which mirrors concentrate solar rays at a single point, melt birds, butterflies, and other living things unlucky enough to stray too close.

California’s Ivanpah Solar Plant, located in the Mojave Desert, has been estimated to kill 6,000 birds per year, as of 2016.

While the issues with solar power towers were predictable, Cashen said that bird deaths linked to photovoltaic panels, the more common design in large-scale solar farms, came as a surprise.

“The more people started looking, the more dead birds started showing up at these photovoltaic facilities,” he said. “It’s to the point now that if you look, you’ll find it.”

Epoch Times Photo
A California quail forages among burned vegetation in Pipes Canyon Wilderness Preserve near Morongo Valley, Calif., on April 12, 2007. The 37-square-mile nature preserve is threatened by a proposed plan to build power lines and transmission towers, ironically to deliver “green” energy Los Angeles from geothermal, solar, and nuclear sources in southeastern California near the Salton Sea, and Arizona. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Sparrow hawks, Western grebes, Virginia rails, American coots, and scores of other species have all been spotted dead or dying at industrial solar facilities in America’s deserts.

The rapid installation of new renewable energy facilities raised another question: are the governments and companies rushing to build new large-scale solar farms doing all they should to protect the animals those projects displace?

Last year, after the rapid approval of Nevada’s Yellow Pine Solar Project, wildlife biologists moved more than 130 desert tortoises, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Thirty of the tortoises were killed. Emmerich said the incident brought his organization welcome attention.

The Epoch Times has reached out to the developer of Yellow Pine, NextEra Energy Resources.

Cashen and Emmerich described another troubling phenomenon.

In the bone-dry deserts of the American Southwest, where drought was making water scarcer by the year, the installation of industrial-scale solar involved water trucks, which lay down moisture along roads to prevent dust from rising.

That water, as well as the shade from the solar panels, could attract lizards, snakes, and other animals. Those very features, said Cashen, can make the panels an ecological trap. The lizards were often run over by watering trucks, while bird nests near the panels may be subjected to scorching temperatures that fry the eggs inside.

Emmerich said the application of water to control dust has often failed to work.

“If you’ve been out here in the summertime, you know how hot it is and how quickly water evaporates,” he said, adding that the disrupted earth can give rise to dust devils.

The Epoch Times reached out to the BLM and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), an industry group.

In addition, The Epoch Times has approached multiple scientists known for their research on the environmental impacts of utility-scale solar.

Heliostats at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System are seen from above in the Mojave Desert in California near Primm, Nev., on March 3, 2014. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Heliostats at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System are seen from above in the Mojave Desert in California near Primm, Nev., on March 3, 2014. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Some Resistance Successful

Although opponents of utility-scale solar have often faced an uphill battle, they have scored some victories.

In rural Vermont, the removal of habitat for bobolinks and other grasslands had been a frequent point of contention, according to Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE).

Yet while many controversial projects had gone through, in 2015, Green Mountain Power failed to secure approval for a proposed 19,000 panel array on a prison property in Windsor, Vermont.

“The site was well known to be excellent grassland bird habitat,” Smith told The Epoch Times.

Local reporting from the Valley News described how 60 neighbors showed up at a hearing on the project. According to that story, virtually all voiced opposition to the installation, which would have provided power for 1,200 homes.

Allen Palmer, an official with Vermont’s Division of Property Management, previously wrote in an email to other Vermont officials that whoever went down to represent the state at that hearing on the project should “let the people vent.”

“Unfortunately, it may be too little too late,” Palmer wrote, according to correspondence obtained through a public records request and shared with The Epoch Times.

“The project was dropped,” Smith said.

Smith, who said she had been living off the grid using solar and propane since 1989, expressed skepticism about the BLM’s proposed rule change, which would lower costs for renewable energy companies operating on public land.

“This industry is heavily subsidized and getting tax breaks everywhere,” she said. “We’re just looking at more centralized power.”

The Epoch Times asked Green Mountain Power and the State of Vermont for comment.

Emmerich was proud of his recent, successful effort to halt the enormous Battle Born Solar project, which would have claimed roughly 14 square miles of desert and been Nevada’s largest solar farm.

“You can see beautiful mountains, and there’s a lot of history and archaeology up there,” he said.

That success was enabled in part by a local activist group, “Save Our Mesa!”

The Epoch Times also reached out to Arevia Power, which proposed the project.

Cashen worried that we don’t yet fully grasp the environmental downsides of solar. He speculated that, in the not-so-distant future, much of America’s desert land could be littered with the toxic, abandoned remains of old solar farms.

“All these things are so new,” he said.

Nathan Worcester

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Nathan Worcester is an environmental reporter at The Epoch Times.



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