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Magazine Articles

Place in the Sun

October/November 201

Photographs by Dave Lauridsen

With big solar projects booming across the Mojave Desert, the Conservancy is racing to keep energy development out of priority areas.

Not far from Death Valley, a black-and-white photograph from the 1920s decorates the dining room of the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon in Shoshone, California, a waypost in the Mojave Desert.

It shows bathers enjoying the natural hot springs of nearby Tecopa. By the middle of the century, the springs had become so popular that developers channeled them into bathhouses, changing the water’s flow and temperature. The tiny Tecopa pupfish—which had spent thousands of years adapting to the unique conditions of those particular hot springs—swiftly went extinct.

In a place like the Mojave, where life is already pushed to its limits, even small changes to natural systems can have major effects.

Now big changes are coming to the desert, and quickly. Nationwide, the government has prioritized the development of utility-scale renewable-energy facilities by offering billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees and incentives. On top of that, California is requiring that 33 percent of its energy production come from low-carbon, renewable sources by 2020.

And nowhere is more attractive—in terms of sunshine, space and access to markets—than the Mojave, which spans 32 million acres in four states.

Over breakfast at the Crowbar, Laura Crane talks about balance. It’s something that she’s always seeking, both as director of the Conservancy’s Renewable Energy Initiative in California and as a mother who’s holding out hope for the future. She wants that future to include more renewable energy, but not at the expense of what makes the Mojave so special: It’s one of the most intact ecoregions in North America. With large areas still unbroken by roads or human use, it’s a haven for biological diversity, including many rare and endemic species and some of the world’s oldest living organisms.

When Crane joined the Conservancy’s Mojave Desert team in 2007, she was shocked to learn that a million acres of California’s public desert lands had already been proposed as sites for renewable-energy development.

That development would have consequences, as Crane and her colleagues realized. Many of the targeted lands included important habitat for threatened species, such as the desert tortoise, and had been largely undisturbed by humans. When utility-scale solar facilities are built,
the land is scraped of vegetation and fenced. The area essentially becomes an industrial site.

“Those proposals represented a huge change of land use,” Crane says. “And yet the decision-makers had to evaluate and approve each application individually. They were completely overwhelmed.” In the rush to break ground on renewable-energy projects, federal and state agencies alike were moving forward without a regional blueprint aimed at minimizing the effects of widespread development on ecosystems and groundwater aquifers.

Meanwhile, renewable-energy developers were getting blindsided by environmental opposition to projects designed to address climate change. “The developers saw themselves as being on the side of saving the world,” says Crane. “And then it was like, ‘What? They don’t like where we’re putting the clean energy?’”

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PLACE_HOLDER Solar panels in a dry lake bed in the Mojave desert. © PLACE_HOLDER

About 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas on Interstate 15, a cump of casinos and gas stations in the unincorporated community of Primm, Nevada, heralds the California border. The surrounding Ivanpah Valley provides crucial habitat for desert tortoises, a federally threatened species that’s getting squeezed out of other parts of the Mojave.

Jim Moore, an ecologist who helped open the Conservancy’s Las Vegas office more than 20 years ago, kneels near a scraggly green shrub. The small burrow beneath the creosote bush is likely home to a desert tortoise, he says. Over the past few decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken more than 9,000 tortoises from around Las Vegas and moved them here.

“Each year, they venture out a little farther from their burrows, and they know that surrounding area very intimately,” Moore says. “They rely on visual cues: They know how much time it takes to get back to their protective burrow; they know when the rains are coming; they know where the annual plants will bloom.”

But the Ivanpah Valley is also becoming the heartland of solar development in the Mojave. It was the site of Nevada’s first major solar facility on public lands—Silver State North, which came online in spring 2012 and produces enough power for 9,000 homes. Construction begins soon on an adjacent project—Silver State South, which will cover approximately 3,000 acres of public lands to power 80,000 homes.

Moore points to a fence enclosing a field of black photovoltaic panels around Silver State North. The bottom third is woven extra tight to keep out  disoriented tortoises. “When you translocate the tortoises, they are totally lost,” he says. “It’s like dropping an infant from Tennessee into central Berlin and expecting it to fend for itself.”

And as solar development in the valley ramps up, the tortoises may need to be moved again.

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The hills are ablaze with April flowers at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve, a state park near Palmdale in the western Mojave.

Just across the California border, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System spreads across another 3,500 acres of the Mojave like a massive, futuristic concert stage. Three 459-foot towers rise in a hazy glow from a throng of 350,000 mirrors.

Whereas photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly into electricity, solar thermal plants use computerized mirrors to track the sun and reflect its rays to boilers atop giant towers. The concentrated sunlight creates superheated steam, which spins a turbine to generate electricity. The $2.2 billion Ivanpah system bills itself as the world’s largest solar thermal project, generating enough power for at least 140,000 homes. It represents an important step in the race to glean more electricity from renewable sources. But its impact on the landscape is undeniable.

Solar thermal projects may use less land than photovoltaic, but they have some serious environmental downsides, says Sophie Parker, a California-based regional ecologist for the Conservancy. All those mirrors can make the surrounding air hot enough to burn the feathers off migratory birds. And it’s a thirsty technology—Ivanpah pumps about 32 million gallons of groundwater each year to keep its boilers full and mirrors clean.

“The Mojave looks dry on the surface, but there’s ancient groundwater deep underground,” says Parker. “People are pumping it out much faster than it can be naturally replenished. It’s basically fossil water. Like fossil fuels, we’ll eventually just run out.”

Even if that fossil water doesn’t run out anytime soon, lowering levels too much could have disastrous ripple effects on the surface, she adds. At places like Ash Meadows, a unique oasis in southern Nevada that connects to the Amargosa River, everything depends on groundwater. The Conservancy helped save Ash Meadows from becoming a subdivision in the 1980s by negotiating the purchase of 13,000 acres that included 12 major springs. That land is now part of a national wildlife refuge that is home to 24 species found nowhere else in the world—including the endangered Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, a cousin of the extinct Tecopa pupfish.

Parker calls Ash Meadows “the Galapagos of the desert,” except that these are liquid islands in a sea of sand.

“Ash Meadows is incredible,” says Parker. “The waters are these crystal-blue pools with amazing fish and plant diversity. But if groundwater levels drop such that it’s no longer reaching the surface, these habitats will disappear. It’s all connected.”

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A transmitter on the shell of a desert tortoise helps scientists monitor this threatened species.

People often make the mistake of thinking that the desert is indestructible because it looks so harsh, but it’s actually quite delicate, says Parker. She notes that you can still see the tank tracks from military training exercises in the Mojave led by Gen. George Patton Jr. in the 1940s.

“It’s important to realize that although desert organisms can survive extreme conditions, they adapted to those conditions without a lot of disturbance,” says Parker. “The desert is fundamentally slower to recover than other ecosystems. So any impact that does occur there is likely to remain for a very, very long time, from a human perspective.”

As the pace of renewable-energy development accelerated in the last decade, Parker, Crane and others recognized the urgent need to ensure that the Mojave’s fragile landscapes would not be obliterated in the rush to tackle climate change. But since the Mojave has a patchwork of ownership that’s 85 percent public, the Conservancy couldn’t rely on the traditional approach of purchasing land to protect it or establishing conservation easements with private landowners to protect it.

“Rights of way for solar and wind development are happening on public lands,” says Parker. “So we realized we needed a new strategy if we were going to be effective in ensuring biodiversity in the desert.”

To that end, the Conservancy set out to paint a landscape-level picture of the best—and worst—places for development. Although many parts of the Mojave are largely undisturbed by humans, some areas have already been fractured by off-road vehicle trails, agricultural use or urban development, and thus would suffer less dramatic impacts from further alteration.

Building on about 50 data sets, as well as aerial photos and interviews with scientists and other experts, a team of Conservancy researchers assessed the ecological value of every square mile of land and water across the entire Mojave Desert, says lead scientist John Randall.

Rather than looking at individual project proposals, the researchers zoomed out to see where the desert was intact, degraded, or entirely converted to development or agricultural uses. In a follow-up study, they overlaid this assessment with information about development suitability, land gradients, and proximity to transmission lines or electricity markets.

“We want to see the transition to cleaner energy, so we’re really looking for solutions,” says Crane. “We’re not only looking for places to protect, we’re also looking for places where energy development could potentially occur with fewer impacts to nature.”

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Despite its extreme temperatures and sparse rainfall, the 32 million acre Mojave is home to hundreds of species. Flora includes California poppies.

In 2010, the Conservancy completed its report and shared it with state and federal agencies. The report highlighted the value of planning projects that proactively avoid environmental impacts rather than trying to make up for losses after development has taken place.

“Our assessment shows that it is possible to meet California’s renewable-energy goals in appropriate places that would not compromise biodiversity and conservation values,” says Parker, one of the report’s authors. “It would also make sense from the perspective of proximity to human development—[people] wouldn’t have to build a lot of new infrastructure in unspoiled areas.”

Working with solar companies, utilities and other environmental groups, the Conservancy has recommended that the agencies consider regional development impacts and mitigation measures instead of just looking at individual projects.

The Conservancy’s report helped influence the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, a plan spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of the Interior that guides solar development in six Western states, including California and Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management now uses that impact statement to guide renewable-energy development and regional planning on 100 million acres across the western United States.

Now, the Conservancy is working to make sure biodiversity and ecological considerations are included within a new joint state and federal plan for renewable-energy development. Still in the works, the plan will create incentives and streamline permitting for solar, wind and geothermal projects on 22 million acres of public and private lands in California—and also plan for how best to protect and invest in wildlife and ecosystems.

If California can find a way to balance the needs and goals of climate-change mitigation, renewable-energy development and ecological protections, it may lead the way for other states to do the same.

And though it might sound as if the Mojave is getting crowded, there’s still plenty of room for hope, says Crane.

“Our analysis shows that California could meet its renewable-energy goals seven times over, just on the degraded lands,” she says. When it comes to addressing climate change or protecting the desert, she adds, “it doesn’t have to be one or the other.”