Big areas of habitat occupied by Agassiz’s desert tortoise and other at-risk species have potential for large-scale solar-energy developments. Peer-reviewed studies are needed, says the United States Geological Survey — but so is a concerted campaign of cooperation and public outreach.

Agassiz’s desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)
Agassiz’s desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) sporting radio tracking equipment, near a wind farm in the Mojave desert. Photo: Jeffrey E. Lovich.

A scientific literature review conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and published in the journal BioScience finds a dearth of peer-reviewed scientific studies of the effects on wildlife of large-scale solar energy developments, especially in the desert Southwest. More studies are needed to adequately assess those effects, USGS says.

First of all, no one wants to trample the environment in the name of saving it. Solar energy developers need to understand and respect the unbiased facts surrounding at-risk species in sunny climes.

At the same time, there’s no excuse for tossing the anti-solar lobby a juicy bone. Fear of killing birds has stalled important wind development projects, even when the real issue was the view.

So, by all means, start studying. Peer-reviewed studies are a strong defense against the kinds of junk science we’ve seen from the tobacco and fossil fuel industries in the past decade.

A strong defense, but not adequate on its own.

Siting a large solar development is not a purely scientific decision. It’s also a political and emotional one. Climate change deniers have been surprisingly successful at sowing doubt, even when surrounded by reams of solid, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that man-caused greenhouse gas accumulations are causing global warming.

What’s needed, in addition to defensible wildlife studies, is a strategy to guide public opinion to accurate conclusions.  Here are five steps the solar industry must take to achieve that.

Members of the industry seem to have taken the important first step: Collaborate with landowners and environmental groups on finding a protection plan that’s agreeable to all parties. Companies like PG&E, FPL, and Iberdrola Renewables  have embraced the potential impact of development on threatened wildlife, and are active participants in finding a solution.

Communicate continuously with interest groups and the general public. Keep everyone informed of proposed plans, construction progress, and compliance with agreed-upon protections.

The public needs broad-based, understandable information. Prioritize all threats to the desert species, such as the construction of housing developments, illegal hunting and off-road vehicle use. Put solar power in perspective in terms of the amount of habitat that would be disturbed. Find ways to offset that with better management of other threats, or land set-asides in public and private habitat preserves.

Don’t let a good deed go unnoticed. When a solar installation is in the public eye, make the tortoise a star and highlight what has been done to protect it. Canada tore up acres of irreplaceable old-growth rain forest around Whistler to make room for Winter Olympic venues, but led every public discussion with a reminder of the measures it took to protect a tiny, endangered frog in the process.

Keep expanding the network of collaborators, and hear every voice. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club worked together with solar developers in 2009 to identify suitable desert areas to build large-scale solar farms. Then the Wildlands Conservancy persuaded U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein to introduce legislation banning renewable energy development on that land, particularly valued by developers for its proximity to transmission lines and the Southern California energy market. Just because a group is an outlier doesn’t mean it can’t torpedo the efforts of others.

Climate change is not in the long-term interest of anyone, including the desert tortoise. Collaboration, communication, public perspective, inclusion and persistence will win us the privilege of using clean solar energy instead of coal- and nuclear-generated power.


Related article:

It’s Green Against Green In Mojave Desert Solar Battle” – Veteran environmental and technology journalist Todd Woody wrote about his visit to the desert in the Yale Environment 360 blog in early 2010.

The USGS paper:

Wildlife conservation and solar energy development in the desert Southwest” by Jeffrey E. Lovich and Joshua R. Ennen.