Hot and Bothersome

The downsides of desert solar projects.

desert solar collection and a tortoise
Getty Images

A common bit of praise offered to the California desert is that it has “abundant sunlight.” This is a little like saying a rattlesnake has “neat teeth.”

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
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Celebrating the sunlight is basically marketing-speak by the solar industry, which sees the desert as an ideal setting for large-scale energy projects that promise to reduce Southern California’s dependence on fossil fuels. From the solar companies’ perspective, the federally owned desert expanses of the Mojave from Joshua Tree arcing up to the Nevada border are vast, flat, and close enough to Los Angeles and its environs that running transmission lines is cost-effective. Plus, most important, the sun thing.

In December, the Biden administration approved two major solar projects in eastern Riverside County, and it signed off on another one in January. Collectively, the three projects will generate enough power for more than 250,000 homes, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

The first two projects, called Arica and Victory Pass, landed amid the fallout of Senator Joe Manchin’s rejection of the Build Back Better plan and were generally depicted, per the New York Times, as “represent[ing] one of a limited number of policy tools available to the Biden administration as it works to wean the United States from fossil fuels and achieve a goal of slashing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half by 2030.”

Lost in the mainstream discussion is whether building solar farms in California’s deserts is really the best solution, or whether it’s actually just the least-bad decision that also happens to maximize shareholder value for developers and utility companies.

“I think if you step back, it’s a fundamentally flawed vision of how we make the transition to a renewable-energy economy to think the best place to put [large solar projects] are on intact desert lands that are not just incredible habitat for imperiled species, but are themselves functioning ecosystems that conserve carbon naturally,” says Brendan Cummings, conservation director of the Tucson, Arizona–based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

It’s human nature to look at California’s deserts and not see much in the way of habitat. This is because keystone species like the desert tortoise know better than to hang around in all that abundant sunlight all day, so they dig burrows that other animals, like Gila monsters, owls, kangaroo rats, and jackrabbits, are smart enough to also use. This gives the desert its famous “Where is everybody?” vibe, making it feel empty enough that acres of solar arrays seem, to us climate-conscious humans, like a pretty good use of the space.

However, the desert is, indeed, a busy place. There are more than 300 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects and 200 species of plants, including the Joshua tree. And, not for nothing, this variety includes a dozen different dune systems and one species of hominid that doesn’t mind the heat and may be partial to simple living, crystals, or both. The desert is also a carbon sink, predicted to suck up and store more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as CO2 levels increase.

So solar projects aren’t written onto a tabula rasa. These projects clear-cut the land, flatten burrows, and displace or kill animals and plants—including the desert tortoise, which is on California’s endangered list. (Developers are working with environmental groups to mitigate this damage by, among other things, relocating animals.)

To check rampant development in the desert, state and federal agencies created the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a blueprint for approving projects and setting aside sensitive areas across 10.8 million acres of public desert lands in California. (The three new projects are the first to be approved under the DRECP.)

The DRECP has the quality, not uncommon in environmental legislation, of being perfectly calibrated to disappoint everyone at least a little bit.

Or, as Ileene Anderson, the CBD’s deserts director and senior scientist, tells it, “Nobody got everything they wanted in the DRECP. Nobody sued over it either.”

While the DRECP addresses some environmental concerns, its “fundamental flaw,” as Cummings calls it, is that both the state and federal government continue to incentivize developers to build on pristine ecosystems, rather than on what California produces in abundance: urban spaces.

The argument that your average desert tortoise might favor is that California’s renewable-energy needs can be met by building not just on residential rooftops, but on warehouse and big-box roofs, parking lots, abandoned agricultural land, and floating solar islands.

Why not employ this distributed approach?

“It’s easier and more profitable for [solar developers] to take a big piece of land, flatten it, and throw solar panels on it,” says Lisa T. Belenky, a CBD senior attorney.

Even as the White House rushes to approve big renewable-energy projects and rack up climate wins, the California Public Utilities Commission is considering changing its rooftop solar rules and possibly cutting credits to residential solar owners, a move former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger criticizes as a “solar tax.

Making rooftop solar less attractive to homeowners benefits huge investor-owned utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, which profit when Californians remain dependent on their grids. Fewer residential solar projects will inevitably lead to development of big desert solar projects, a lose-lose.

In the face of all this, Cummings, whose job is to be skeptical, is skeptical. “When the government is doing such a poor job of addressing every other element of the climate crisis, and the only thing that they’re doing that they think is worth celebrating is destroying intact carbon-storing ecosystems full of rare and imperiled species, and saying that this is big progress on solving the climate crisis, it rings a little hollow.”

Even in California, where there’s supposedly sun for everybody, it’s being yanked here and there by self-congratulating government and self-interested industry. It’s enough to make you want to crawl into a hole in the ground—while there still are some.•

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