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Research Indicates Large, Desert-Based Solar Facilities Can Negatively Impact Native Vegetation

Published: Wednesday, October 7, 2020 - 2:17pm
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MARK BRODIE: As solar energy becomes a bigger part of utilities' portfolios, large-scale solar facilities are being built in previously undeveloped areas, often in the middle of the desert. And new research from the University of California, Davis says those projects can have a negative effect on native plants, including cacti. Steve Grodsky is an assistant research ecologist at the John Muir Institute of the Environment at UC Davis. He and a colleague studied the area around a solar facility in California. And while that's the Mojave Desert, he says the findings also apply to the Sonoran Desert, since the site preparation methods are the same. Grodsky joins me to talk more about this. And Steve, you think what you found is unique to this kind of development? In other words, would it be the same if the project were to build homes or some other kind of commercial development?

STEVE GRODSKY: Yeah, I think, you know, you're going to have similar disturbance and responses from the plants. Yes, I would say so. You know, in terms of the solar facilities themselves, the site preparation, whether it's bulldozing or mowing, which is slightly less intensive, you're still introducing a novel disturbance into a desert ecosystem that is not necessarily used to that sort of thing.

BRODIE: Well, and, you know, a lot of these solar projects happen in undeveloped kind of remote areas because they tend to be big and tend to be away from population centers, commercial centers, things like that — places where there generally is undisturbed desert land. So how should maybe the utilities or the companies that are developing these, how should they be looking at getting the site ready and maybe trying to get their renewable energy without totally disturbing the plants that are there?

GRODSKY: Right. Yeah. I mean, so what we're trying to do is provide both management recommendations broadly and then specifically. So we believe that, you know, if we, if you can avoid developing in these relatively undisturbed, sensitive desert ecosystems that are far away from urban centers where the electricity is actually being used, that's most likely the best option in terms of conserving natural resources and ecosystem services for people, including indigenous people of the desert southwest, for example. If you are going to develop in desert ecosystems, however, there are some ways, management practices that can make that more sustainable. And some of the novel conservation measures and management practices that took place that Ivanpah, so Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System where we conducted the study. So mowing is going to be better than bulldozing for plants in general. And also, preliminary evidence suggests that leaving undeveloped islands within solar fields, so not fully filling in the entire area with solar infrastructure and leaving these sort of undeveloped islands within the solar fields, may have benefits to desert plants. So there are things that can be done and we think that it's feasible in terms of economics, and it's more of a decision that can be made by solar industry to push more sustainable development and you know, potentially it could be better for them in terms of branding renewable energy as being environmentally-friendly.

BRODIE: If you're not building these projects in large tracts of land in undeveloped areas, it sounds like a different kind of project it — maybe different scale of renewable energy, though, right? If you're building it closer to population or commercial centers.

GRODSKY: Right. So that's a that's a challenge that we're, that we are at the Wild Energy Initiative, which is a research initiative at the John Muir Institute of the Environment, those are the types of questions that we're looking into now. So, you know, what are the alternatives? So we know that solar development that's going to occur closer to urban centers where ecosystem services and natural resources have already likely been compromised in comparison to less developed areas, these areas are going to be better off ecologically. And then also from even a cultural perspective, when you can generate electricity closer to where it's being used, then you're minimizing the effects on local communities. So what we're looking at is ways to sort of push this solar development closer to urban centers. Some potential sites could be the rooftops of large commercial buildings, there are abandoned agricultural lands — so these are salt-affected agricultural lands that you can no longer grow crops on, so they're sort of wide open spaces with solar resources in the southwest in general. Also, you've got to think creatively, right? So where, where are there areas that we can double down on in terms of increasing our land use efficiency? So landfills, superfund sites, et cetera. And, you know, these are going to be slightly smaller facilities, but in terms of industrial scale, you know, we think that with enough of them combined as possible, you can generate the required electricity where you're getting kind of a two-for-one special out of these limited land resources.

BRODIE: I want to ask you about something you just mentioned. And it seems like it's kind of the, maybe the overarching philosophy to some of what you're doing here, which is, you talked about being able to brand renewable energy as really being good for the environment. And it seems like there's kind of a juxtaposition here because people generally think of renewable energy as being good for the environment and don't necessarily think about some of the ecological and other issues that go with some of these large-scale projects that you're talking about here. How do you try to sort some of that out in terms of trying to promote renewable energy and solar energy, but also trying to do it maybe in a more thoughtful way than, than how it's sometimes done?

GRODSKY: Yeah, that's a great question. And that's really the big challenge, right? We are being realistic about the situation. Renewable energy is undeniably the future. In this new generation, this new wave of renewable energy development while dealing with climate change issues, for instance, and becoming more aware of ideas like environmental justice, you know, we have a chance now to do things in a sustainable fashion. And that doesn't mean, you know, shutting down renewable energy. It just means doing it in a smart and sustainable way. We do need ecosystem services and we do need to conserve natural resources for people moving forward, in addition to generating electricity to meet the demand of a growing human population in an era of looming land scarcity. So it's definitely a challenge, but we're not against renewable energy at all. We're talking about how can we all work together to do this in a smart, sustainable way.

BRODIE: All right. That is Steve Grodsky. He's with the John Muir Institute of the Environment at UC Davis. Steve, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

GRODSKY: Thank you.

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