Smart Takes

Should we sacrifice wildlife for solar power?

Posting in Cities

Environmental groups have largely approved BrightSource's 3,500-acre solar farm in the Mojave desert, despite the accompanying ecological destruction.

A minor city is springing up in the middle of the eastern California desert, an hour's drive from Las Vegas. A wastewater processing facility and a power plant will serve Ivanpah's denizens -- namely BrightSource's 170,000 or so mirrors for concentrated solar power that are expected to generate enough power for 140,000 homes at peak generation.

Meanwhile, the development has displaced endangered desert tortoises, driven birds from the site, and all vegetation in the 3,500-acre area has been clipped at the precise height to fit under the mirrors.

But, as the Los Angeles Times reports, environmental groups have mostly given BrightSource a free pass for developing the solar farm. The Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council have kept quiet; The Center for Biological Diversity agreed to not make a fuss in exchange for conserved land elsewhere.

The silence is because of the trade-off environmentalists face: to go for the long-term good and push for sustainable energy, or save a few species? Or wait, maybe it's the other way around: invest in the latest solar innovation in lieu of millions of years of evolution? Either way, its the question groups are facing, not just at BrightSource's solar farm in Ivanpah, but at other sustainable energy sites worldwide.

"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."

Maybe the clearing of thousands of acres of animal and plant life isn't iching any environmentalists because it's in the middle of the desert. The Mojave is home to Death Valley, frequented by windstorms and gets around 13 inches of rain each year -- not exactly a top vacation slot.

On the other hand, the Ivanpah plant sits adjacent to three National Parks: Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve. And the diversity of these ecosystems is surely underestimated as soon as the word 'desert' is uttered. The Mojave National Preserve alone is home to 900 species of plants and 300-plus species of animals.

It's easy to argue that displacing such wildlife is acceptable at a single site, especially if it's a trade for 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, as estimated. But it does set a bit of a dangerous precedent. Are US deserts now free for all solar development? Will Western US -- and deserts worldwide -- just become a giant solar farm, and would that be a good idea?

Photo: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson

Sacrificing the desert to save the Earth [Los Angeles Times]

Share this

Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure