Destroying The Mojave Desert: The Dark Side Of Solar Power

The face of the Mojave Desert, an arid region comprising more than 25,000 square miles of southeastern California and portions of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, is changing. As a frequent visitor to this desert, I am concerned.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Construction cranes rise like storks 40 stories above the Mojave Desert. In their midst, the “power tower” emerges, wrapped in scaffolding and looking like a multistage rocket.

Clustered nearby are hangar-sized assembly buildings, looming berms of sand and a chain mail of fencing that will enclose more than 3,500 acres of public land. Moorings for 173,500 mirrors each the size of a garage door are spiked into the desert floor. Before the end of the year, they will become six square miles of gleaming reflectors, sweeping from Interstate 15 to the Clark Mountains along California’s eastern border.

Six square miles of gleaming reflectors?

$2-Billion Solar Energy Plant

BrightSource Energy, based on Oakland, CA, is creating a solar power project at Ivanpah Valley, CA, and it will change the environment for miles around. The facility will soon be a humming city with 24-hour lighting, a wastewater processing facility and a gas-fired power plant.

The $2-billion plant will contain computers that continually focus the field of mirrors to a center tower filled with water, which will heat to more than 1,000 degrees. The resulting steam will drive an array of turbines capable of generating 370 megawatts, enough to power roughly 140,000 homes during peak hours.

The Trade-Off

That sounds great, but what about the surrounding land?

To make room, BrightSource has mowed down a swath of desert plants, displaced dozens of animal species and relocated scores of imperiled desert tortoises, a move that some experts say could kill up to a third of them.

This is a dilemma with no clear answers, just compromises.

The public got its chance to comment at scores of open houses, but the real political horse trading took place in meetings involving solar developers, federal regulators and leaders of some of the nation’s top environmental organizations.

From The Los Angeles Times:

“I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection,” said Johanna Wald, a veteran environmental attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts. We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It’s not an accommodation; it’s a change I had to make to respond to climate.”

Industrial-scale solar development is well underway in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The federal government has furnished 21 million acres for solar power, more public property to this cause than it has for oil and gas exploration over the last decade.

Shift In Federal Policy

What has opened the way for such a costly source of energy is the dramatic turn in federal policy. In 2005, the Bush administration established generous programs to reward renewable energy developers. The Obama administration continued the policy, offering $45 billion in federal tax credits, guaranteed loans and grants.

In California, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger freed large solar plants from property tax and handed out $90 million in exemptions from sales and use taxes. Under Governor Jerry Brown, the state invested more than $70 million in clean energy research last year.

The Opposition?

Ironically, most of the opposition as come from the government, in the form of the National Park Service, which has voiced the strongest complaints about the scale and siting of solar projects. California’s desert parks: Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve have the most acreage affected by the development.

The Department of Defense also has raised questions, the the Federal Aviation Administration has voiced concerns about the heat plume rising from the Ivanpah towers and about the installation’s possible radar interference.

Dennis Schramm, who retired last December as superintendent at Mojave National Preserve, found himself at odds with the Interior Department, his own parent agency, in defending the 900 species of plants and 300-plus species of animals in the preserve, especially the desert tortoise.

There are no easy answers here, but could it be that once again the Big Energy Companies are calling the shots? Meanwhile, I think I’ll take my desert hiking elsewhere.

Related Stories

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9 Questions To Ask Before Buying Solar Panels

Photo Credit: iStock



Ron Mohler
Ron Mohler4 years ago

There is/are no such thing as an "Empty Space" not even in the desert. There are animals, plants and other organisms that live and need just about every inch and niche on the planet. And even if it is "just a bacterium or virus, it can still prove to be most vital. Just try and see if you could live without the bacterium living in your digestive track. Some of these just might prove to be capable of cleaning up the destruction of oil spills and other pollutions. I agree, we definitely need to move beyond fossil fuels to renewable, but we must be very careful. We don't want to jump from bad to worse. I'm sure that if we put our heads together, we can find a way to mitigate the damages that might be done, and save the desert environment.

William C.
William C.5 years ago

I second Cheryl B. It's a DESERT ! Licensed Tortoise Wranglers move the tortoises, and they can migrate back under the solar panels after construction.

In the desert, water is life. Solar panels provide shade and reduce evaporation. You'll see a boom in the variety of life underneath the solar panels after a few years.

Besides, should we allow the extinction of the Human Race to save the desert tortoises?

Fukashima is a radioactive time bomb and there are fools that want to build MORE nuclear plants. Coal fired power plants pump out global warming gasses and build up mountains of coal ash... and let's not forget the radioactivity released by burning coal.

And you seriously want to complain about building solar power plants in the da###d desert?

"such a costly source of energy "

That's IT. You have NO conception of the word "costly".

You are obviously nuts.

lis Gunn
lis Gunn6 years ago

Portland. I like your idea that perhaps the solar panels may humidify the area so that there might be side benefits such as water for lawns, golf courses and swimming pools. But I think that" part of the problem. There is no more water on the planet. It just changes form. So while some of us insist on using more (for our swimming pool, lawn, golf course, producing bottled water, washing machines and car washes, others will have to do with less. The problem is compounded by tapping for natural gas, tracking and other industrial uses which pollute and contaminate our existing water supplies and natural environment in our ever increasing use of fossil fuels.

Incidentally, Japanese authorities have announced that its wrecked nuclear plant will be unsafe for workers for the next forty years. Imagine if one lived nearby.

Pego Rice
Pego R6 years ago

The Mojave is a natural desert and has an extremely active ecosystem that has already been badly damaged by the extermination of the Coastal Texas Cane forests and the Central Texas mixed woodlands (that used to push water into the central 4 corners region)

That still does not make the few acres that are used as environmentally disastrous as even a small portion of Fossil Fuels

Ernest R.
Ernest R6 years ago

@ Karen L Have you considered that having fewer children might be a less destructive and “a better alternative to digging, fracking or shipping oil....not to mention wars that have spent so many lives for oil!”

KAREN L6 years ago

I certainly agree with those that say there should be more private homes and businesses to host these panels rather than sticking them all out in the desert. But even the huge panels are a better alternative to digging, fracking or shipping oil....not to mention wars that have spent so many lives for oil!

Nicole O.
Nicole O6 years ago

can't they find an empty would think there are plenty in the desert

Maggie F.
Margaret F6 years ago

Industrial scale anything can be a problem. In my opinion solar is the best answer to our growing energy needs - plus conservation of course. But individual solar energy gathering on individual buildings and homes are the best answer. Senator Bernie Sanders (I) from Vermont has offered a bill that would encourage solar hot water heating on homes across America. Perhaps in the future there will be a better solar plan for large energy production but this project seems like it covers an awful lot of acreage in order to provide energy to 140,000 homes.

federico bortoletto

I pannelli solari dovrebbero essere solo posti sui tetti di case e fabbricati. Per terra non dovrebbero essere messi MAI.

jill bukovnik
jill Campbell6 years ago

To Rick G. Thank you for shedding some light on this desert situation. It really doesn't look like they "mowed a swath" of anything. You can go out into the deserts in some areas and see nothing but sage brush forever.

People need power that does not add to global warming. You can't have it both ways.