News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Government Study: Big Renewable Energy Projects Threaten Wildlife

Biodiversity and energy development don't necessarily mix. | Photo: Joshua Smelser/Flickr/Creative Commons License

More than half of the Mojave Desert biodiversity "hotspots" identified in a study published this week are under threat from utility-scale renewable energy development and related transmission corridors, with as much as 17 percent of the habitat in those hotspots sitting directly in the footprint of proposed energy and transmission projects.

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The study, "Evolutionary Hotspots in the Mojave Desert" by the U.S. Geological Survey's Amy G. Vandergast and 13 co-authors from the USGS and various universities, was published Monday in the journal Diversity. Vandergast and her colleagues examined genetic records of 17 Mojave Desert animal species, calculated the genetic diversity within those species and mapped those parts of the Mojave Desert that were home to the greatest amount of that diversity. Vandergast et al identified 10 "hotspots" of that genetic diversity within the Mojave Desert, which were:

  • A: Dunmovin - Coso Junction (CA)
  • B: Sierra -Tehachapi Transition (CA)
  • C: Antelope Valley - Mojave Desert Transition (CA)
  • D: Ord Mountains - Lucerne Valley (CA)
  • E: Indio Hills - Little San Bernardino Mountains (CA)
  • F: Pluvial Lakes (Bristol/Cadiz/Danby) (CA)
  • G: Colorado River Mountains (Mojave/Black Mountains) (CA/NV/AZ)
  • H: Sacramento-Detrital Valley (AZ)
  • I: Ivanpah Valley (CA/NV)
  • J: Virgin Mountains (NV/AZ)
Animal biodiversity hotspots in the Mojave Desert | Image courtesy Diversity

They then overlaid a map of proposed utility-scale solar and wind projects, along with associated transmission corridors, and found that six of the ten identified hotspots overlapped with energy development projects.

High levels of genetic diversity within species are significant in that they can offer a species a greater chance of surviving future ecological challenges such as climate change. Such genetic diversity can result from a range of different conditions in a small area to which members of a species must adapt -- or to use the phrase offered by Vandergast et al, "an ecotone of steep environmental gradients." Such ecotones are usually present where different kinds of habitat butt up against each other: a steep mountainside verging onto an alluvial plain, the edges of grasslands, the banks of a desert river such as the Colorado, and so forth.

Genetic diversity within a species can also be heightened in places where two formerly separated populations of that species meet. By way of example: one of the species studied, the Mojave desert tortoise, is especially genetically diverse in its Ivanpah Valley population, and Vandergast et al hypothesize that this may be due to the dry lakes on the valley floor offering an historic barrier to gene flow when they had water in them.

Other species of the 17 examined by the team ranged from two species of ground spider to the desert bighorn sheep, and included four species of rodent, two snakes, a toad, and a number of lizards both rare and common. Most of the animals studied are considered endemic to the Mojave Desert -- they live there and nowhere else.

As the habitat these animals live in in the desert's hotspots seems to be driving increased genetic diversity, fragmenting that habitat may well be a threat to that diversity's future -- and to the ability of those species to adapt to an increasingly changing desert. Vandergast's team found that proposed desert utility-scale renewable energy projects would occupy between 2,563 and 3,209 square kilometers of the hotspots they identified for the 17 animal species they studied. (That's 990-1,240 square miles, an area twice to three times the size of Los Angeles.) Transmission corridors through hotspot areas ate up another 8,503-10,733 square kilometers, which works out to between 3,283 and 4,144 square miles -- roughly equivalent to somewhere between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles counties in extent. Combine both footprints and energy development could displace as much as 17 percent of the total land area of those biodiversity hotspots.

The researchers note that their work isn't the be-all and end-all of biodiversity studies in the Mojave, especially noting that there's a lot of potential in the northern part of the Mojave for as-yet undiscovered hotspots, in places where energy development also proceeds apace:

The lack of coverage in the northern Mojave represents a significant data gap. Because hotspots tend to occur at ecotones, the northern transition between the Mojave and Great Basin may also retain high genetic diversity. This region may be particularly important if climate change results in northward range shifts for some species.

In our race to develop utility scale renewable energy at all costs, in other words, we may not know what kind of biodiversity we're sacrificing until it's too late.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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According to U.S. Department of Energy figures renewable energy projects use the following amount of land: Solar PV - 4300 Acres/GWh; Solar Concentration - 2600; Wind - 1400; Geothermal - 47 Acres/GWh.

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How many biodiversity hotspots are destroyed when solar power is sited in the built environment? Yeah, none.


So tell me again why all our government and ratepayer resources are flooding Big Solar and Big Wind and Big Transmission train wrecks but it is impossible to get the proven, affordable, effective solution of FAIR feed in tariffs for non-deadly clean power?

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I recall the movie 'Idiocracy' when reading the outcome of studies and attend hearings for these Projects. For years this has been common knowledge to those with a glimmer of education or have spent more than a 24-hour period in even one of these areas, yet those who perform these studies note this as something shocking. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the public has lost hope for our environment's future, we say this as past and current participants in this process who have evaluated the true impacts caused by heavy development in undisturbed areas. The environment and species do not adapt to the project elements, instead they are ripped from their homes, crushed or blasted, fragmented by clearcuts hundreds of feet wide which are maintained with chemical sprays to reduce toxic weed growth, bashed out of, burnt or cut in half while in mid flight and on occasion leave their young who don't survive all in the name of greening the environment. Again, we, more appropriately some as human beings see this as their best engineering effort and design capability for our planet's health, I'm sure with the number one focus on corporate profit - or the human race. After all, it is the human race that has caused the most distruction to this planet, if there is another species that has even come close to "us", please correct my ignorance. Now there are groups and agency set in place to protect these species, but there are mandates and direction to build these Projects by others, which in the end eliminate all hope for the need of these species to be heard. With our poor planning, inability to change, unwillingness to identify these areas and protect them for future generations, the heath of our planet and the benefit of the species who rely on these areas, the human race is quickly racing to exterminate many. It has almost become comical the discrepancies between studies provided to and studies provided by the project developers, and the jurisdictions who provide support in area like Kern - Area B noted in the article above. The BLM California website indicates over 150K acres of projects in that area alone. Private developments may only be a third of that size. Our hope is that we learn that steering from one disaster and pushing into another provides no long term solution. Look beyond the horizon and see what is required for all species to survive in a healthy balance, and if adjusting your lifestyle is necessary, than educate yourself on how to reduce your resorces and so be it.......