Solar Farms: Taking Over
An Oasis has become a Dead Sea
Last updated 7/21/2023 at 10:14am
A lengthy article in the Guardian newspaper entitled, “How Solar Farms Took Over the California Desert: ‘An Oasis has Become a Dead Sea,’” by Oliver Wainwright, May 21, 2023, offers insight into the cumulative impact of utility scale Solar plants on the desert’s populations – both human and non-human.
It’s also a cautionary tale, considering that San Diego County is viewing desert lands in the Borrego Basin - specifically Borrego Springs for utility scale plants to mitigate the carbon footprint of the coastal communities. A decision to adopt the Regional Decarbonization Framework (RDF) will be before the Board – sometime in November. Borregan’s have reasons to have their voices heard opposing the plan.
The dilemma in addressing climate change challenges is that for every solution, another one, or two or three, is created. Thus, it is with utility scale Solar plants, such as the 150,000-acre Riverside East Solar Energy Zone, which, according to the Guardian, is ground zero of California’s Solar energy boom.
“It is a crucial component of the United States green energy revolution. Solar makes up about 3% of the US electricity supply, but the Biden administration hopes it will reach 45% by 2050, primarily by building more huge plants like this across the country’s flat empty plains.”
The article went on to make a critical point, which is that the federal Bureau of land Management (BLM), the agency tasked with facilitating these projects on public land – doesn’t seem to have been fully taken into account: the desert is quite as empty as it thought.
“It might look like a barren wilderness, but this stretch of the Mojave is a rich and fragile habitat for endangered species and home to thousand-year-old carbon capturing woodlands, ancient Indigenous cultural sites-and hundreds of people’s homes.
“Residents have watched ruefully for years as Solar plants crept over the horizon, bringing noise and pollution that’s eroding a way of life in their desert refuge. Residents of a senior living community increasingly surrounded by Solar plants, complain of allergies and skin diseases they never experienced before.” Then, there are the breathing difficulties.
“We are a senior community and half of us now have breathing difficulties because of all the dust churned by the construction. I moved here for clean air, but some days I have to go outside wearing goggles,” claimed one resident. Others identified psychological problems from the pounding of the metal posts to the dust, the loss of their desert views and habitat; and the feeling they are prisoners in their own homes.
A plant planned just 200 meters from their backyards has intensified concerns. Residents claim that excessive water use has contributed to the drying up of two local wells, and their property values have been hit hard, with many struggling to sell their homes.
According to the reporter, the mostly flat expanse of the Joshua Tree park was originally identified as a prime site for industrial scale under the Obama administration, which fast tracked the first project, Desert Sunlit, of 4,000 acres, in 2015. “Opening the floodgates, as the largest Solar plant in the world at the time, since then, 15 projects have been completed or under construction.
“But as the pace of construction has ramped up, so have voices questioning the cumulative impact of these projects on the desert’s populations – both human and non-human.”
Kevin Emmerich worked for the National Park Service for over 20 years before setting up Basin & Range Watch, a non-profit campaign to conserve desert life. He says, “Solar plants create myriad environmental problems, including habitat destruction, and ‘lethal death traps’ for birds, which dive at the panels, mistaking them for water.”
Adding that one project bulldozed 600 acres of designated critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise, while populations of Mojave fringe toed lizards and bighorn sheep have been afflicted.
“We’re trying to solve one environmental problem – carbon sequestering – by creating so many others,” stated Emmerich.
Such adverse impacts are supposed to be prevented by the federal Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which was approved in 2016 and covers almost 11 million acres of California.
Much of the critical habitat in question is dry wash woodland, made up of “microphyll” shrubs and trees like palo verde, ironwood, catclaw and honey mesquite, which grow in networks of green veins across the desert. And, according to the article, compared with old-growth forests of giant redwoods, expanses of venerable Joshua trees, the significance of these small desert shrubs can be hard for the untrained eye to appreciate.
“When people look across the desert, they just see scrubby little plants that look dead half the time,” said Robin Kobaly, a botanist who worked at BLM for over 20 years as a wildlife biologist before founding the Summertree Institute, an environmental education non-profit.
“But they are missing 90% of the story – which is underground.”
Her book, “The Desert Underground,” features illustrated cross sections that reveal the hidden universe of roots extending up to 150 feet below the surface, supported by branching networks of fungal mycelium.
“This is how we need to look at the desert,” she says, turning diagrams from her book upside down. “It’s an underground forest just as majestic and important as a giant redwood forest, but we can’t see it.”
“The reason this root network is so valuable,” Kobaly argues, “is because it operates as an enormous ‘carbon sink’ where plants breathe in carbon dioxide at the surface and out underground, forming layers of sedimentary rock known as caliche.
“If left undisturbed, the carbon can remain stored for thousands of years,’” she says.
Desert plants are some of the oldest carbon capturers around; Mojave yuccas can be up to 2,500 years old, while the humble creosote bush can live for over 10,000 years. These plants also sequester carbon in the form of glomalin, a protein secreted around the fungal threads connected to the plants’ roots, thought to store a third of the world’s soil carbon.
“By digging these plants up,” says Kobaly, “we’re removing the most efficient carbon sequestration units on the planet – and releasing millennia of stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the Solar panels we are replacing them with have a lifespan of only around 25 years.”
Desert lovers and residents need to get acquainted with DRECP, the baby of the federal Bureau of Land Management, as it is placing Solar plants on public land wherever it can. BLM land is federally owned land managed by the Bureau. But like all government juggernauts, projects like the march of Solar plants take on a life of their own irrespective of the public harm or lack of adequate research. Rather in the rush to conquer, money becomes the master. Especially, when Solar plants are viewed as such a great investment, with corporations being formed daily for this purpose.
Combine this march of large, shiny, mirrored heliostats, and a sprawling photovoltaic sea, replacing the desert’s ancient layers of geological history and beauty, with decisions by local governments to offer up private land for purposes of limiting the carbon footprint. Governments, like San Diego County, are prodded by the state to move quickly on reducing carbon by 2045, or suffer financial punishments, after ignoring the issue for nearly a century.
Late with solutions, the quickest and biggest impact for the county is to offer private land for sale and development of large utility Solar plants. Why do Americans always believe big is better? Many environmentalists believe smaller plants and roof top mandated Solar programs can lessen the irreversible impact on the deserts’ private and public lands and achieve the same goal.
Too late and too little, catching up with a climate collapse, ignored since the 1960’s, at this point seems like needlessly and blindly destroying what’s left of the living world as a last desperate attempt to do what should have begun, consciously, thoughtfully, well planned with the backing of real science and understanding of the interdependence of the human and nonhuman species, 73 years ago.
What happens to our desert homes, and the largest and natural sequesters of carbon, as pointed out by Robin Kabaly, in a sensible manner, will ultimately depend on us and our ability and willingness to pay attention and react accordingly.