Shedding Light on Solar Energy Projects

Solar projects must be carefully designed to avoid desert bighorn sheep habitat.

Defenders’ California program director, Kim Delfino, co-authored a guest editorial in the  San Diego Union-Tribune last Friday that outlines some of the flaws in the Bureau of Land Management’s draft plan for guiding solar energy development.

While most of us have an understanding of how polluting fuels such as coal and oil harm the planet, the dark side of solar energy to some may still be a little murky. I caught up with Delfino so that she could help shine some light on the topic.

Q: Why must we be careful in planning solar power projects?

KD: We need to put solar power projects in the right places in the desert because these enormous facilities can be as big as several hundred football stadiums. When you build one of them out in nature, you can inflict a lot of harm to the animal communities that live there, such as our iconic desert tortoise and bighorn sheep.  Who would want to see solar energy — which is a good thing because we don’t have to pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink to generate electricity from sunshine — become a bad thing because we’ve trashed nature and wildlife habitats to get it?

Kim Delfino

Kim Delfino, Defenders’ California program director

Q: What could happen if we’re not careful?

KD: When you break ground in the desert, it’s done as habitat for wildlife. The land has to be to be plowed almost completely flat for a solar power plant. That means much of the plant life gets wiped out, leaving no food or shelter for the other animals that live there. Tortoises, which live in underground borrows, can be buried alive or crushed underground. And solar power plants need water to clean dust off panels or mirrors, to make steam for generators, and for people working at the facilities to use. If this water is pumped from scarce desert streams, flows and watering holes, then thirsty animals will be left high and dry.

Q: Does this mean we can’t have solar energy in the desert?

KD: There are countless places in the desert for responsible solar energy development. In fact, there are many lands that already been damaged by other kinds of development, such as mining and farming, that can no longer support wildlife. But they could be “recycled” into solar power plants. For a lot of reasons, it’s better to put a project in these places, like abandoned alfalfa farms, because they’re closer to cities, roads and power lines – and not out in the middle of nowhere. Putting projects in such places will speed up our transition to clean, renewable energy and keep wildlife out of harm’s way.

What Is Defenders Doing?

Defenders is working with policymakers in the U.S.  Department of the Interior and Congress, project developers and investors and other conservation partners to promote better long-term policies for renewable energy development and to improve pending energy generation and transmission projects.

On the ground, Defenders is:

  • Walking proposed project sites, analyzing their potential impacts on wildlife and providing comments to state and federal regulatory agencies
  • Working with renewable energy developers to choose locations for facilities that keep wildlife out of harm’s way, such as areas that have already been degraded

Learn more about renewable energy and wildlife.

Take Action

The federal government is hosting a series of public meetings throughout the region to discuss its draft plan on where to site large-scale solar power plants on public lands. Check out listings to find events in your area.