Solar Power Is Booming. But It’s Putting Desert Wilderness At Risk.

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The Mojave Desert, straddling California and Nevada, has been called the Saudi Arabia of solar power. It’s a clean energy developer’s dream: vast open lands, roughly equal in size to the entire state of New Mexico, with an endless bounty of heat from the sun.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in the Mojave have been made available for solar plants, and applications have been pouring in over the last few years from the likes of Goldman Sachs, California utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric and multiple Silicon Valley-backed startups.

But as developers scramble to set up their projects, some scientists and conservationists are warning us not to forget vital ecosystems in the process. What about the threatened cacti and the ants that rely on their nectar? they ask. Or the birds that nest in tree-like Mojave yucca, a cousin of the iconic Joshua tree? Striking a balance between conservation and renewable energy, experts say, is critical for a sustainable future.

Solar development can reduce or alter local biodiversity, according to a new study published in July in the journal Nature Sustainability. But there are ways to avoid or limit the damage. These include creative design to protect threatened plants and less-intense methods for clearing the land before construction. Better yet, say the researchers, efforts should first be made to choose sites that have less environmental significance, like the roof of an already existing warehouse or an abandoned mineral mine.

“Renewable energy is the future, we need it, that’s obvious,” said Steven Grodsky, an assistant research ecologist at the University of California, Davis and co-author of the paper. The question he said is, “How can we do this in the smartest, most sustainable way possible?”

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