Environmentalists and green energy advocates frequently praise the development of renewable energy sources, most notably wind and solar farms. These operations are often perceived as benign installations on a seemingly unused rural locale, such as deserts or isolated grasslands. The realities of these behemoth energy farms, however, is realized in the form of mega-projects that encompass vast expanses of pristine natural landscapes serving as habitat to a wide range of rare and sensitive species.
Currently, there is a gap in knowledge and research addressing how large tracts of utility-scale solar energy development (USSED) lands affect wildlife on a local and regional scale. Most of the scientific peer-reviewed research to date relates to aerial threats to birds from collision with wind turbines.
The US Geological Survey recently led a study that was published in BioScience discussing 15 known and possible threats caused by USSED in the southwestern United States. The study analyzed the construction and eventual disassembly of the facility as well as the operation and maintenance lifecycles of a typical solar field. The dangers to wildlife range from habitat destruction and fragmentation to electromagnetic field effects and noise pollution. The article does not however seem aimed at discouraging the creation of alternative energy facilities like USSEDs. Rather, the authors urge solar developers to utilize the precautionary principle and they encourage more scientific analysis so as to implement a USSED design that minimizes any negative effects on wildlife.
The federally threatened Agassiz’s desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is a species that may be impacted by the installation of a USSED. These tortoises are considered to be one of the most important species in the region due to their capabilities to engineer the landscape by creating burrows that are used as shelter by other animals. The effects of development to this important species are largely unknown to the science community. Another federally threatened species in danger is the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard (Uma inornata). These lizards, along with other subterranean species, are greatly threatened by development because any compaction of soil could entrap the animals during hibernation periods.
The rapid approval of solar land development permits by the Bureau of Land Management warrants increased scientific inquiry into this subject. This issue has the potential to create a fracture among environmentalists as debate may develop between the importance of protected species and biodiversity over clean energy and global climate.