Environmentalists Oppose Mojave Desert Solar Power

Published September 1, 2009

Environmental groups advocating for land conservation and protection of endangered species are lining up in opposition to measures to expedite solar energy projects on federal lands, particularly in the Mojave Desert, announced by Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar on June 29.

Loss of Water, Habitat

With solar power plants having a much larger footprint and demanding more water for power generation than traditional power plants require, battle lines between environmental activist groups are being drawn in the desert sand.

The Mojave Desert seems at first glance to be perfect for solar power generation. Its southern location receives relatively direct sunlight, and clouds rarely obscure the desert sun. The majority of applications for solar power permits on federal lands are near the shared borders of Arizona, California, and Nevada.

But solar power plants require large swaths of land to collect enough of the sun’s energy to create a significant amount of usable power. Long transmission lines must be built in the desert to deliver the power to urban centers. As a result, solar power generation removes significant vital habitat for critical desert species, including endangered desert tortoises, frogs, and lizards.

Solar power plants also require vast amounts of water the desert cannot spare. The plants use four times as much water as a natural gas power plant and twice as much water as a coal or nuclear power plant.

Feinstein Taking Lead

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is championing congressional legislation to turn much of the Mojave Desert into a national monument, which would prevent solar power development there.

Feinstein is finding support from the Wildlife Conservancy, which is wary of large-scale solar power plants in the Mojave.

“It would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem,” Wildlife Conservancy Executive Director David Myers recently told the Associated Press.

The National Park Service, similarly concerned about the effects of water depletion and land development on critical species, is likewise opposing many solar power plants in the Mojave Desert.

Misplaced Priorities

Tom Tanton, a senior fellow for energy studies at the Pacific Research Institute, said, “It’s not just the construction of the solar farms but the ongoing maintenance of the plants that further encroach on habitats.”

Tanton is also disturbed by the preferential treatment wind and solar projects receive.

“They already get favoritism in the form of tax credits; they should not get it when it comes to habitat conservation. It’s time to stop extreme favoritism for wind and solar and make them play by the same rules,” Tanton said.

“Sacrificing anything, especially endangered species, to enable one of the dumbest modern energy ideas imaginable is anathema,” Tanton added.

Penny Rodriguez ([email protected]) writes from Parrish, Florida.