Energy. Few initiatives are more important to the future of our planet than the development of clean, renewable power sources. Greenhouse gases from fossil fuels have contributed to climate change with disastrous implications for humans, animals and plant life.
For this reason, The Nature Conservancy has made devising a viable, environmentally sensitive plan for alternative energy a top priority.
The need for renewable energy development is nowhere more acute than in the state of California. With the highest population and largest economy of all the states in the U.S., our need for electricity is great. Meanwhile, we boast an ambitious state law mandating that fully one-third of our energy be generated by renewable sources by 2020.
Unfortunately, the rush to create alternative fuel sources, such as solar and wind power, has led to schemes that could jeopardize critical elements of the very environment they could potentially save.
Large-scale solar and wind plants proposed for the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts threaten to permanently alter vast tracks of these lands, and they may require enormous amounts of fresh water. These plans could destroy unique and highly fragile ecosystems and put at risk numerous plant and animal species—including desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and bald eagles—while compromising vulnerable freshwater resources.
Careful scientific study by The Nature Conservancy, however, has demonstrated that this trade-off between energy and ecosystem is unnecessary.
We conducted an extensive assessment of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts to identify the areas where energy development would have the least ecological impact. Then, working with a coalition of environmental organizations, we developed siting recommendations that will meet California’s renewable energy needs while protecting the integrity of our natural systems.
The Conservancy has long been a leader in responsible, collaborative planning, and here we are participating in an inclusive approach that brings together the Bureau of Land Management—which owns much of the land and is charged with issuing permits in the desert—the energy industry and environmental experts to devise siting solutions that are beneficial to multiple constituencies.
Water is another paramount consideration in renewable energy plans: Some solar technologies necessitate large quantities of fresh water to produce energy and to clean the mammoth arrays that collect the sun’s emissions. In southern California, water is already a stressed resource.
The Amargosa River watershed, for instance—a critical area of diverse plant and animal life that the Conservancy has labored to protect for decades—is in danger of improper water use.
Consequently, we are working with the agencies charged with water permitting and mitigation to establish protocols for water usage that allow renewable energy facilities to get the water they need while protecting our vital freshwater resources.
If we can create successful partnerships that result in sensible renewable energy plans in California—where the pressure for development is so great and the contest between stakeholders can reach a fevered pitch—we believe that we can offer a model for collaboration to other areas of the western U.S., and to the country as a whole.
Location: Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, spanning four states—California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona
Size: 36 million acres
At Stake: Desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, black-tailed jackrabbits, desert tortoises; species found nowhere else in the world including the Mohave ground squirrel, Devil's Hole pupfish, at least eight other subspecies of pupfish and speckled dace, endemic spring snails, native amphibians and many other species
Threats: Inappropriate siting of renewable energy projects that will destroy irreplaceable habitats and disrupt a fragile ecosystem; excessive or inappropriate use of limited freshwater resources by solar energy plants without appropriate safeguards in place