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Reduced ecosystem services of desert plants from ground-mounted solar energy development

Abstract

Deserts are prioritized as recipient environments for solar energy development; however, the impacts of this development on desert plant communities are unknown. Desert plants represent long-standing ecological, economic and cultural resources for humans, especially indigenous peoples, but their role in supplying ecosystem services (ESs) remains understudied. We measured the effect of solar energy development decisions on desert plants at one of the world’s largest concentrating solar power plants (Ivanpah, California; capacity of 392 MW). We documented the negative effects of solar energy development on the desert scrub plant community. Perennial plant cover and structure are lower in bladed treatments than mowed treatments, which are, in turn, lower than the perennial plant cover and structure recorded in undeveloped controls. We determined that cacti species and Mojave yucca (Yuccaschidigera) are particularly vulnerable to solar development (that is, blading, mowing), whereas Schismus spp.—invasive annual grasses—are facilitated by blading. The desert scrub community confers 188 instances of ESs, including cultural services to 18 Native American ethnic groups. Cultural, provisioning and regulating ESs of desert plants are lower in bladed and mowed treatments than in undeveloped controls. Our study demonstrates the potential for solar energy development in deserts to reduce biodiversity and socioecological resources, as well as the role that ESs play in informing energy transitions that are sustainable and just.

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Fig. 1: ESV system of a desert scrub plant community in the Ivanpah Valley, Mojave Desert.
Fig. 2: Spatial elements of the study site and design.
Fig. 3: Solar energy development decision treatments.
Fig. 4: Effects of solar energy development decisions on perennial plant structure, cover of plants using the CAM photosynthetic pathway and cover of the invasive grasses Schismus spp. during peak spring growing season within ISEGS and in surrounding natural desert.
Fig. 5: Effects of solar energy development decisions on the ESV of plants among first-tier ES categories.

Data availability

An Excel workbook with all raw plant data is included as Source data.

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Acknowledgements

We thank B. Beatty, B. Elkin, C. François, T. Heitz, M. King, J. Meyers, M. Milliron, G. Piantka, L. Rose, A. Scheib, T. Sisk, D. Stoms, J. Valentine, J. Weigand and B. Weise for feedback that improved this study. We thank NRG Energy for their cooperation on and support of this project. We thank J. Whitney for assistance with field data collection and K. Lamy for graphic design assistance. We received funding for this research from the California Energy Commission (Electric Program Investment Charge-15-060), the Bureau of Land Management California (grant number L19AC00279) and UC Davis Agricultural Experiment Station Hatch Projects (grant numbers CA-R-A-6689 and CA-D-LAW-2352-H).

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S.M.G. and R.R.H. conceptualized the study, designed the experiment and collected field data. S.M.G. conducted literature syntheses and analysed the data. S.M.G. and R.R.H. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Steven M. Grodsky.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–5, methods and text.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Excel workbook of raw data used in study.

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Grodsky, S.M., Hernandez, R.R. Reduced ecosystem services of desert plants from ground-mounted solar energy development. Nat Sustain 3, 1036–1043 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0574-x

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