Desert damage: the dark side of solar power?

Mar 30, 2009 By Pat Brennan

Thousands of acres of solar panels could spring up across California's Mojave Desert like a crop of crystal mushrooms -- a new kind of gold rush meant to bring powerful environmental benefits.

Cutting such a wide swath, however, might also disrupt and the fragile plants that thrive there.

It's a concern expressed by some policymakers and scientists, including Darren Sandquist, a Cal State Fullerton biologist with a perspective all his own.

For years, Sandquist has studied the subtle changes wrought across the desert surface by railroads.

Such structures divert runoff into culverts and channels, altering the flow of water across the land. That, in turn, changes both the types of plants in the Mojave as well as where they grow. Similar effects can be expected from large or wind power projects.

"It's certainly going to damage some of the ecology," Sandquist said. "I think that's a tradeoff we have to accept. It's part of becoming less reliant on oil, and more reliant on solar and wind power."

Sandquist hopes designers of large solar and wind projects will try to avoid the most harmful effects.

"I think they should take into account how the redistribution of resources in general is going to affect ecosystems," he said.

The railroad he's been studying, near Kelso Depot in the Mojave National Preserve, has existed for about a century; he's been able to track vegetation changes since that time.

Species of plants, plant cover and even the size of plants have been affected. Similar effects can be seen along desert highways.

"Anybody who drives through the desert notices the size of plants," he said. "Right next to the road, the plants are much larger."

Such changes are likely to bring shifts in animal populations as well, although Sandquist said measurements of effects on animals in the area are not yet complete.

Not only the effects of roads, but of dust kicked up when desert plants that hold soil in place are cut down to make way for solar arrays could be harmful to the delicate desert ecology.

"Studies have shown the dust on surfaces of leaves significantly reduces the photosynthetic ability of plants," he said. "Productivity decreases."

One of his big concerns is something few of us even know exists.

"One of the most important living structures on the surface are biotic crusts," he said -- commonly networks of cyanobacteria and lichens. They can be disrupted or destroyed simply by walking on them.

"They don't extend more than a few millimeters below the surface," he said. "Just by being there, they hold the dirt and silt in place."

Losing them can lead to massive dust storms.

Even minor changes to desert solar projects could protect the variety of organisms that dwell there, he said. Instead of building roads, for example, operators of arrays that require few visits for maintenance might consider buying larger trucks and just driving over the existing plants.

"I really feel like the ecosystem could handle it if they just drove over it every once in awhile," he said, instead of removing large sections of vegetation to build roads.

GIant solar arrays are a very real possibility in the Mojave. The California Public Utilities Commission estimates that 100,00 to 160,000 desert acres would be needed to meet the state's goal of increasing renewable energy by 33 percent by 2020. Fourteen solar and five wind projects are being proposed on about 42,000 acres within in a 600,000-acre area known as the former Catellus lands, between the Mojave Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

Activist groups are angry, especially the Wildlands Conservancy, which provided $40 million to purchase the lands for preservation. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently announced a new effort to preserve all or part of the area by declaring it a national monument.

"Some people would argue that desert organisms are as resilient as they come," Sandquist said. "But they are vulnerable and sensitive because they are living on the edge _ limited water, very warm temperatures, very cold nights during certain times."

___

(c) 2009, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).
Visit the Register on the World Wide Web at www.ocregister.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Explore further: Scientists discover coral's best defender against an army of sea stars

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Feinstein seeks block solar power from desert land

Mar 21, 2009

(AP) -- California's Mojave Desert may seem ideally suited for solar energy production, but concern over what several proposed projects might do to the aesthetics of the region and its tortoise population ...

Desert power: A solar renaissance

Apr 01, 2008

What does the future hold for solar power? “Geotimes” magazine looks into more efficient ways of turning the sun’s power into electricity in its April cover story, “Desert Power: A Solar Renaissance.”

The desert is dying

Feb 14, 2007

Researchers from University of Bergen have found that trees, which are a main resource for desert people and their flocks, are in significant decline in the hyper-arid Eastern Desert of Egypt.

Californians bask in solar energy

Jan 04, 2007

Soaring energy costs, environmental consciousness and financial incentives have combined to make solar panels part of the California housing landscape.

Recommended for you

Rating the planet's oceans

15 hours ago

The most comprehensive assessment conducted by the Ocean Health Index rates the Earth's oceans at 67 out of 100 in overall health. In addition, for the first time, the report assessed the Antarctic and the ...

User comments : 40

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

deatopmg
3.7 / 5 (12) Mar 30, 2009
There is no free lunch!
QubitTamer
3.5 / 5 (20) Mar 30, 2009
So, lets just not do solar in the best places because of worries about ecosystem impact. Last time i checked, people were also part of the ecosystem and i for one will pick people over plants and highly abundant animals any day. Probably the author and the biologist he's quoting have never been to the southwest desert. It's frickin huge. I bet if we covered only 1% of it with wind and solar power generating equipment we could power millions of homes. All this hand wringing over miniscule land use...
ealex
2.4 / 5 (14) Mar 30, 2009
So, lets just not do solar in the best places because of worries about ecosystem impact. Last time i checked, people were also part of the ecosystem and i for one will pick people over plants and highly abundant animals any day. Probably the author and the biologist he's quoting have never been to the southwest desert. It's frickin huge. I bet if we covered only 1% of it with wind and solar power generating equipment we could power millions of homes. All this hand wringing over miniscule land use...


The second part of your comment has some merit. The use they are talking about in this case is about 7%, which is not that much, and the damage to the ecosystem is probably exgerrated in this article.

However, the first part of your comment only shows that you have absolutely no clue as to how the Earth's ecosystems work and how our life is sustained by those very ecosystems. That being said, you should abstain from making ignorant comments relating to biology when you obviously have no knowledge of it, much less make ad-hominem comments about a scientist you equally obviously know nothing about.
Husky
3.7 / 5 (9) Mar 30, 2009
It could well be that the extremely finetuned ecosystems could be damaged by so much shade, but I feel we have to weigh the disturbance of a piece of dessert against the possibillity of global dessertification by doing nothing against greenhouse effect
superhuman
2.2 / 5 (18) Mar 30, 2009
Last time i checked, people were also part of the ecosystem and i for one will pick people over plants and highly abundant animals any day.


I for one will pick plants and animals over highly abundant ignorant people who's sum total of life achievements is another mountain of trash.
lengould100
3.4 / 5 (16) Mar 30, 2009
It needs to be recognized that there exist a minority of "ecologically active" people (not normally well-trained enough to be called "ecologists") who will not be satisfied until humanity is back living as hunter-gatherer cave-dwellers, preferrably without fire. These ones simply cannot be satisfied in any way regarding systems of energy generation. Offer them nuclear in place of coal, they refuse. Offer them wind, they complain of bat kills. Offer them central solar, they complain of desert damage. Offer them distributed solar PV, they complain of rsource constraints to manufacture the solar cells. In their paradigm, the only solution is to completely revert to a no-transportation manually-farmed economy with no wood products used in construction, no paper, etc. etc.

Society needs to set broadly agrees guidlines on these topics, against which all these "complaints" (plants grow too large near roads?) can be weighed against the tradeoffs, and consensus established. That consensus then needs to be clearly enough documented that it can be used either to halt all desert solar development, or to halt all the ambulance-chasing lawyers from delaying the projects.
Sophos
4.4 / 5 (8) Mar 30, 2009
We know a similar thing happens when a dam is built. I bet wind farms will have an impact disturbing wind patterns, the general public is against coal and nuclear So what do you do when people will not go without power

So in a sense nearly everyone will choose people over plants when its plants or electricity
Doug_Huffman
2.2 / 5 (13) Mar 30, 2009
Consensus is the absence of responsibility. I will do what I think correct and puck your normative statements. If you're smart then you will follow me, and your neighbors, you.
LariAnn
2.5 / 5 (11) Mar 30, 2009
IMHO, part of the problem is thinking that the only solution to energy independence has to be new centralized megacorporate providers, whether it be energy supplied via wind, solar, or etc. We don't need another group of "too big to fail" megacorporations to replace the oil companies; we need a solution that will enable the individual as well as the country to become energy independent. This will require looking at true alternative energy possibilities, not just an alternate way for the megacorporations to continue fleecing the sheeple.
zevkirsh
3.3 / 5 (7) Mar 30, 2009
paralysis by analysis. this country is immobile. the devveloped world simply cannot adjust fast enough and change things fast enough because of government and law. only after a collapse of social political structures, will the rise of a powerful dictator make such changes possible. until then, coal is and will remain cheap enough.
holoman
2.9 / 5 (8) Mar 30, 2009
Japanese are working on tapping satellite microwave power from ionisphere.
THEY
3.8 / 5 (11) Mar 30, 2009
Gee, they COULD put solar panels on roof tops.... Oh yeah, they can't. Cause then they wouldn't be in control of the electricity, the homeowner would.
NeilFarbstein
3.6 / 5 (10) Mar 30, 2009
Not building roads and packing the dirt down with trucks is a constructive idea. Feinsteins bill is too extreme. There are two nature preserves to the north and souuth of that patch in the mohave and they are much bigger than it. They have enough land preserved already.
jimbo92107
2.6 / 5 (10) Mar 30, 2009
Beware of the astroturf with this one. What may appear to some as a purely ecological issue may in fact be a puppet movement financed by Big Coal and Big Oil. Watch for who is getting their financing.
Sean_W
2.9 / 5 (15) Mar 30, 2009
Down with energy! Everyone just sit still and starve. It is hard at first but once your muscles atrophy it requires very little effort. How do you know you won't find it rewarding if you don't try it? It's like earth hour for the truly committed. Spend 60 days starving in the dark and you will acquire such a sense of peace that you will never want to do anything else.
vlam67
3.3 / 5 (7) Mar 30, 2009
Just put the bloody lot of solar arrays OVER Area 51, for God's sake! (apart from the runways) Then you can generate power while shielding the hot stuffs from satellites!
Schnarr
4.5 / 5 (4) Mar 30, 2009
It needs to be recognized that there exist a minority of "ecologically active" people (not normally well-trained enough to be called "ecologists") who will not be satisfied until humanity is back living as hunter-gatherer cave-dwellers, [preferably] without fire. These ones simply cannot be satisfied in any way regarding systems of energy generation. Offer them nuclear in place of coal, they refuse. Offer them wind, they complain of bat kills. Offer them central solar, they complain of desert damage. Offer them distributed solar PV, they complain of [resource] constraints to manufacture the solar cells. In their paradigm, the only solution is to completely revert to a no-transportation manually-farmed economy with no wood products used in construction, no paper, etc. etc.


And those same people would agree with all that which you have listed, with the exceptions of being solely hunter-gather, having no fire, and having no wood (where logging practices are sustainable). From their perspective, they want to live in small scale communities, like a modern version of ideas from the Tao Te Ching that Lao-Tzu intentioned. Such as having small farms and villages with as little interaction, as possible, between them. Basically going back to ecologically sustainable methods. A major one being massive human population reduction... Poor article on wiki ( http://en.wikiped...-village ), however it gets the gist.

I, however, believe a middle ground can be reached, where environmental damaged is minimized and renewable resources can be adequately developed.
Bob_Kob
2.7 / 5 (16) Mar 30, 2009
lol its a desert. Nothing of use exists there except for the sun that we want to tap into.
freethinking
2.9 / 5 (15) Mar 31, 2009
So acording to environmentalist, we need to turn off our lights, we cant use solar power, wind power, nuclear power, hydro power, or coal power.
People who call themselve environmentalist should be called what they are. Crazies.
Egnite
3.4 / 5 (8) Mar 31, 2009
It's ok to rip up rain forests and destroy ecosystems for many species but to do something worthwhile and kill off a few shitty plants in a desert is wrong? WTF! Obviously someone has a hidden agenda here!!
Soylent
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 31, 2009
Gee, they COULD put solar panels on roof tops.... Oh yeah, they can't. Cause then they wouldn't be in control of the electricity, the homeowner would.


No, the vagaries of weather would be in control. Solar power is useless without natural gas; the grid is not a battery.
Suzu
3.9 / 5 (7) Mar 31, 2009
Who cares about deserts? Wouldn't actually decreasing desert space, be a good thing?
lengould100
3.3 / 5 (7) Mar 31, 2009
Superhuman:
Last time i checked, people were also part of the ecosystem and i for one will pick people over plants and highly abundant animals any day.


I for one will pick plants and animals over highly abundant ignorant people who's sum total of life achievements is another mountain of trash.

Ideally, you first, eh?
Brendan
2.6 / 5 (10) Mar 31, 2009
People on here calling environmentalist's crazy, are in deed the crazy ones! All this article is doing is showing one side effect of possible solar pannel construction. The scientist that you are all ripping, if you read the damn article, even says the side effect are worth the energy we will gain. All he is doing is making us aware of the side effects. Something I bet Australia wishes they did when they introduced cane toads to fight insect infestation, or The U.S when they decided to damn the whole Colorado river, leading to the U.S having to stop Salmon fishing for the first time ever. All this scientist is doing is pointing out possible side effects nothing more, so all you ignorant people freaking out need to relax, go back to first grade, and learn to read!
Velanarris
2.1 / 5 (8) Mar 31, 2009
People on here calling environmentalist's crazy, are in deed the crazy ones! All this article is doing is showing one side effect of possible solar pannel construction. The scientist that you are all ripping, if you read the damn article, even says the side effect are worth the energy we will gain. All he is doing is making us aware of the side effects. Something I bet Australia wishes they did when they introduced cane toads to fight insect infestation, or The U.S when they decided to damn the whole Colorado river, leading to the U.S having to stop Salmon fishing for the first time ever. All this scientist is doing is pointing out possible side effects nothing more, so all you ignorant people freaking out need to relax, go back to first grade, and learn to read!


Well now that you're out of first grade you'll be challenged with new and interesting concepts. For example, grammar and spelling. If you're really advanced you'll learn which "damn" to use when, and that environmentalist's is possessive, not plural. Perhaps the fact that "in deed" is one word. Let us know when you're done with that, Brendan, so we all know what to look forward to.
GrayMouser
3.5 / 5 (8) Mar 31, 2009
...or The U.S when they decided to damn the whole Colorado river, leading to the U.S having to stop Salmon fishing for the first time ever.

What does the damming of the Colorado River have to do with a fishing ban on the Northern California and Oregon coastlines? Nothing.
dachpyarvile
2 / 5 (8) Mar 31, 2009
The environmental effects will be very real, I am afraid. There is a place in the Mojave Desert with only a handful of a particular fish species left. I think there are no more than a couple dozen left and they only live there and nowhere else in the world. There are other species like that of other kinds of desert life.

But, this article omits the other environmental concerns such as the high potency greenhouse gases used to manufacture and clean the bloody things, which have been escaping into the atmosphere since 1978, and which will increase as the manufacturing process increases to build these massive, inefficient installations which will still use fossil fuels to offset off-periods.

They cry and rue over loss of species via extinction they attribute to CO2 but the losses are acceptable when it comes to solar installations? It is unacceptable to lose species and habitat for oil drilling whereas doing the same for solar panels is acceptable? Interesting. Destroy the planet to save it!



The Gorians should come up with a new model like "So-and-so corporation... Destroying the world to save it."
Brendan
2.5 / 5 (6) Apr 01, 2009
Valenarris, glad you have so much free time, must be nice to have all that time just to go on physorg to correct people's grammar, and nothing else. My point remains the same, a scientist was just giving his opinion of the possible side effects, and physorg just reported on it. I say well done, and that people bashing environmentalist, for pointing out possible side effects need to get a grip. So when you done your important job of skimming other comments for grammatical mistakes, let me know if you have any insight other then correcting one's grammar! To Gray Mouser, I'll tell you what it has to do with it, since you pick one tiny detail out of my paragraph, and think your intelligent about the matter. "Central Valley dam operations and Delta water exports from the Colorado River, have drastically damaged Salmon Stocks which eventually spawn on the California and Oregon Coast" that is from Oregon State's Fisheries and Wildlife director, verbatam. So I suppose you know more then him GrayMouser?! Please just beat it, unless you have something insightful to add.
Velanarris
4 / 5 (4) Apr 01, 2009
Valenarris, glad you have so much free time, must be nice to have all that time just to go on physorg to correct people's grammar, and nothing else. My point remains the same, a scientist was just giving his opinion of the possible side effects, and physorg just reported on it. I say well done, and that people bashing environmentalist, for pointing out possible side effects need to get a grip. So when you done your important job of skimming other comments for grammatical mistakes, let me know if you have any insight other then correcting one's grammar!
One could say the same of you for skimming the commentors' posts for environmentalist bashing while providing no point of your own.



Since you appear to be a master of sophistry, give em a few reasons why the current environmentalists' should not be bashed. After all, we have evidence of a select few of them falsifying data, maliciously creating pseudoclimate models that all result in inaccurate observational modeling, and of course, don't forget the arguments from authority.



But maybe you don't want to do that, seeing as you think damming the colorado effected the north pacific salmon fishing ban even though the misquote you're touting has zero references to give it any sort of creedence.
Brendan
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 01, 2009
Velanarris, I know that because the river is named "The Colorado River" you might think it only flows in Colorado, there for having no impact on the North pacific, but your dead wrong my friend, pull out a map. http://aquafornia...ves/7665
There's the link my friend. Read up.
I'm not skimming posts like you for grammar mistakes, I'm reading people's opinions. Which lead me to MAKE MY POINT, which is every scientist is entitled to list possible side effects of a particular landscape being changed, and had governments and bodies to be have listened to scientist's possible side effects in the past, catastrophic events like introducing cane toads in Australia, or Damming the Colorado River/Sacremento River, could have been avoided! That is my point. You on the other hands are just talking semantics, and have too much time on your hands. I feel for you.
Velanarris
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 01, 2009
Great link, quick read. 404 Error page not found.



By the way, it's the Klamath river that's resulting in the ban, and if you educated yourself beyond skimming posts on a forum you'd know that the counts for the Klamath river have been up and down for the past 30 years. Sorry that you consider my free time as idle. Perhaps you should use yours to do some reading rather than playing xBox and cruising porn.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (4) Apr 02, 2009
FYI: Here's the colorado river.

http://upload.wik...shed.png

Flows no where near the North Pacific. That is unless you consider Baja California part of Washington and Oregon.
barakn
3 / 5 (5) Apr 05, 2009
Even if you don't care one whit for the plants or general desert ecology and only about effects on humans, this article should give you pause. It noted an increase in wind-blown dust due to disruption of plants and biotic crust. This dust will not only decrease the power-gathering capabilities of the solar facilities in the area but also will be carried far and wide, eventually polluting the air of densely-populated urban areas. I don't know if you would consider having to wear a dust mask a boon to your quality of life, but I sure don't.
UncleDave
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 05, 2009
That being said, you should abstain from making ignorant comments relating to biology when you obviously have no knowledge of it, much less make ad-hominem comments about a scientist you equally obviously know nothing about.





Or ad-hominem comments about fellow posters?
Arikin
5 / 5 (3) Apr 06, 2009
Umm... Lets try spacing the solar panels out from each other a bit. Then the impact would be more in line with a tree shading.

Also, require any corporations that set up solar farms to lessen road traffic to, from and around the solar farm. Which could be done when most of it is automated. We can work around environmental concerns if we think about solutions and not fighting over who is right or more important.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2009
Even if you don't care one whit for the plants or general desert ecology and only about effects on humans, this article should give you pause. It noted an increase in wind-blown dust due to disruption of plants and biotic crust. This dust will not only decrease the power-gathering capabilities of the solar facilities in the area but also will be carried far and wide, eventually polluting the air of densely-populated urban areas. I don't know if you would consider having to wear a dust mask a boon to your quality of life, but I sure don't.

Nevermind the change in the quality of air, imagine the effects on water quality.
GrayMouser
1 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2009
To Gray Mouser, I'll tell you what it has to do with it, since you pick one tiny detail out of my paragraph, and think your intelligent about the matter. "Central Valley dam operations and Delta water exports from the Colorado River, have drastically damaged Salmon Stocks which eventually spawn on the California and Oregon Coast" that is from Oregon State's Fisheries and Wildlife director, verbatam. So I suppose you know more then him GrayMouser?! Please just beat it, unless you have something insightful to add.

Please provide a link to backup your quote. "Central Valley" is a ambiguous term since I live in California and we have a "Central Valley" which has no connection with the Colorado river (beyond stealing water from it.)
dachpyarvile
1 / 5 (2) Apr 08, 2009
Even if you don't care one whit for the plants or general desert ecology and only about effects on humans, this article should give you pause. It noted an increase in wind-blown dust due to disruption of plants and biotic crust. This dust will not only decrease the power-gathering capabilities of the solar facilities in the area but also will be carried far and wide, eventually polluting the air of densely-populated urban areas. I don't know if you would consider having to wear a dust mask a boon to your quality of life, but I sure don't.


Nevermind the change in the quality of air, imagine the effects on water quality.


I certainly don't want to think about it! Imagine how toxic the water is going to become when biotic material in dust hits the reservoirs?!? Biotic matter plus chloramines equals poisoned water. And, there will be no relief from this in the use of bottled water since we now know that bottled water is no more than filtered tap water! Save the earth from CO2 but destroy the earth with inefficient technologies and the heavy environmental impact involved!

"WeSaySo Corp. Destroying the planet to save it."
dachpyarvile
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 08, 2009
Umm... Lets try spacing the solar panels out from each other a bit. Then the impact would be more in line with a tree shading.



Also, require any corporations that set up solar farms to lessen road traffic to, from and around the solar farm. Which could be done when most of it is automated. We can work around environmental concerns if we think about solutions and not fighting over who is right or more important.


While a nice thought, it would exponentially increase the foot print and cost of the superstructure as well as decrease efficiency of the array, requiring the use of more resources and land. The maintenance costs would skyrocket and environmental impact would widen.
Velanarris
5 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2009
It jsut goes to show, environmentalists are all for saving the environment, but only if it's the environment they like regardless of how "natural" it may be.