Solar Panels Sometimes Pit Global Warming Against Local Ecosystems

By Sarah Zhang | February 9, 2012 10:22 am

spacing is important Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert

Solar energy has been enjoying its day in the sun with massive federal subsidies, but the energy taken from sunlight also has a dark side. Building these plants in the American West destroys large swathes of the desert ecosystem. Cacti must be mowed down and local wildlife displaced to make room for the giant mirrors that will essentially carpet the desert. The LA Times has a great feature on the Ivanpah project in the Mojave that began construction in October 2010.

Far from an empty stretch of sand, the Mojave supports diverse wildlife. No one knows exactly how the new solar power plant will affect the tortoises, eagles, and Joshua trees that currently inhabit the area. Is it okay to sacrifice the desert in the fight against larger climate change? The situation has put environmental groups in a bind, as Times reporter Julie Cart explains:

The national office of the Sierra Club has had to quash local chapters’ opposition to some solar projects, sending out a 42-page directive making it clear that the club’s national policy goals superseded the objections of a local group. Animosity bubbled over after a local Southern California chapter was told to refrain from opposing solar projects.

Thanks to support from environmentalists and government, solar energy is a hot investment right now. But the “green” that motivates solar developers may have more to do with money than the environment:

By taking advantage of the available government subsidies, shrewd solar developers can get taxpayers to cover close to 80% of a multibillion-dollar project. The rest comes from investors, attracted by what amounts to a tax shelter.

But other companies — often no more than a website and a phone number — obtained solar permits from the federal Bureau of Land Management with no apparent intention other than to sell their place in line. Some gobbled up permits, sat on the land and never turned a spade of soil.

Photos and visualizations of the power plant in progress are also on the Times website.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Doug Dolde

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • vel

    humans and their energy needs are the prime example of the tanstaafl principle. We will impact the planet and its other lifeforms.

  • Cathy

    Why the desert at all? Why not roofs…? Since we installed our solar hot water heater on our roof, our electricity costs dropped by a third, and our KW/hour usage has dropped to the point where once we get the funds together, we can paper the rest of our roof with solar collectors and be off the grid completely. We’re a small house with a small roof. If every home did this, if every business did this, we would not have to touch delicate ecosystems. We could just use the ones we’ve already ruined with cities.

  • Jay Fox

    Out here in Northern California, (the real north, not the Bay Area), local governments are concerned that “grid-tie” systems do not pay their fair share of grid maintenance costs. As more people install these systems, locals who do not have such systems are subsidizing grid costs for those who do. The end result is climbing energy costs for those who buy their power from the grid.

    If enough of these systems are installed, it will become very difficult for an entity such as PG&E to make a profit and maintain the grid. Check that. They will make a profit, it’s guaranteed. Maintenance? Not so much. And we’ll pay more for it.

    I see a scenario in the future where grid-tie systems will have hefty fees attached to make up for lost transmission fees. The only other solution would be large battery banks and removal from the grid entirely. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, but it would remove people from the rate-payer pool. Then comes the question, how many ratepayers will it take to maintain service? At what cost?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for privately generated clean power. If I had the money, I’d convert today. But this technology is going to change the way we’ve acquired and used power, and not everyone is going to benefit, at least not during the transition.

  • dcwarrior

    The question is, is the environmental community willing to make the hard choices? It seems the answer is yes. Sure the desert is impacted. Any development has an impact on some habitat or another. The question is, is this better overall than another FEASIBLE plant of some other sort?

    I think the rooftop idea is worthwhile to explore, sure, and yes someone should plow ahead with that. Is that a reason not to do the desert solar?

    But I think the Sierra Club is trying to do the responsible thing of finding ways to LOWER impact because there isn’t necessarily energy sources available now (or soon) with NO impact.

  • BArry

    why isn’t more money spent on efficiency and reducing usage…every study tells you that is the cheapest and safest way to handle our energy needs. Second why has the government pursed natural gas cars…which are much greener than electric cars?

  • maihuenia

    Destroying some of the most vulnerable American landscape to build a show project that will make absolutlely no impact on energy needs using the most heavily subsidized form of energy known–makes as much sense as the Chevy Volt.

  • Zach Singer

    I am all in favor of CSP, I am glad to hear that our country hasn’t abandoned this technology. For those of you who aren’t familiar with CSP one of its distinct advantages is that it is the only form of solar power capable of providing energy through the night. CSP heats some material by focusing light on it, that material, such as molten salt (which retains heat quite well), can be stored below ground for use when the sun isn’t shining.

  • Thomas Paine

    I realize this is an over simplification but given our current technology we can either

    1) Destroy desert to help prevent global warming
    2) Gain a lot more desert through global warming

  • Bob

    About 4 decades ago my research advisor told me about this wonderful environmental group he belonged to, the Sierra Club. It didn’t take long to learn that these folks were a bunch of elitists who really didn’t like the common folk and, quite often, weren’t too bright about the environment. The only change is they have more money. It is not surprising that the Sierra Club is “for” any environmental destruction that supports their national goals. Imagine all the yapping if some evil private company wanted to build on these sites.

    Solar arrays take up 5-10 acres per megawatt, are extremely costly and are not all that reliable. They seem only to be viable when heavily subsidized as indicated in the article. Like windmills, they stop working about the time the subsidies dry up and, like windmills, we are left with non functioning eyesores. I believe that anyone who thinks solar is a good idea, should put them up without the subsidies. I’m all for that.

  • scott

    There are areas of the desert that are more species populated (and scenic) than others. Be more selective. There are areas of the Mojave, Sonoran, etc, that even desert lovers will drive through as fast as they can to get somewhere more interesting.

    ANY species, to survive, has to use, eat, displace something else. So, nature lovers or not, we have to accept that in order to live and carry on, we have to disrupt some places.

    We have the ability to do it in a balanced, managed way, and live well as long as we can keep a cap on the greed and waste that are so prevelent in our society. Good luck with that.

    I know some really green hippies who gripe about almost anything, yet….they themselves destroyed many micro ecosystems in building and maintianing their own home.

    The problem with the Earth is not using oil, or making roads, agriculture or eating meat..the problem with the world is overpopulation. Hundreds of millions of new people added who will never find work and will never be able to live at western standards, but will try as hard as they can at the expense of the environment. We could all make a choice to keep the population at about 3-4 billion and everyone could live first world lives with proper management.

    I am just saying…we could…

  • Ruth Boyer

    To claim “massive federal subsidies” for solar energy while making no mention of the federal subsidies for other energy types is to be deliberately misleading.

    A simple comparison shows that in the past decade, federal subsidies for oil alone were at $72 billion dollars, compared to $29 billion for all renewables. (Source: Energy Information Administration; link:

    So the federal government spent 250% more on oil subsidies than on solar subsidies.

    Here is another graph that shows the current relative level of tax subsidies by energy type, courtesy of the Joint Committee on Taxation:

    And for a longer term view that takes into account the multi-century history of energy subsidies, take a look at this graph, sourced from both the Congressional Budget Office and the Energy Information Administration:

    To ignore this history, and blithely charge that it is solar energy that is laying claim to massive subsidies is to leave you open to the legitimate charge of attempting to spread misinformation.

  • mark

    My problem is with the BLM who won’t let us use OUR land because of endangered species. Then comes along $$$$$$ and go ahead have at it. We enjoy the desert it’ our escape from our day to day life. PUT THIS MONEY INTO CONSERVATION OF CURRENT USAGE AND SOLAR PANELS ON EVERY ROOF TOP IN AMERICA. OH YEAH NO ONE WANTS TO SEE THEM IN THERE FRIGGING BACK YARD.

  • Ryan


    Keep the population at 3-4 billion, huh? For this ideal to occur, you’re going to have to cull the herd a bit. Last time I heard, the population was over 7B people. I kid, as I agree. We really do need to take a serious look at population control. Unfortunately, this subject is political suicide. We prefer wars and famine to keep our population in check, okay? Don’t you start getting rational on us.


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