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April 01, 2015 | By:  Jonathan Trinastic
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A matter of scale: the cultural and environmental impact of big solar

Eighty miles east of Palm Springs, California, eight million solar panels lean toward the sky, their deep blue shine a modern oasis interrupting the brown dust of the Mojave Desert. Known as Desert Sunlight, the solar power plant is the first of its kind and promises to provide 550 megawatts (MW) of clean energy powering over 150,000 homes in California (a few percent of the state's total power consumption)1. Such large amounts of power from one, 3000-acre solar installation have been unheard of until now, hinting at a revolution in large-scale renewable energy generation that could compete with fossil-fuel-based power plants.

Not so fast, say Native American tribes and environmentalists, who protest these solar plants due to their impact on sacred heritage lands and native species. The ongoing debate shines an important light on the fact that renewables introduce unique environmental and cultural impacts. These issues may rest in a blind spot for policymakers trying to reduce fossil fuel emissions at all costs or private companies taking advantage of renewable energy mandates and subsidies to cultivate successful business ventures.

All about timing

A beneficial political climate and plummeting costs of solar panels has made the Desert Sunlight plant possible. California has set strict mandates to produce a third of their energy from renewables by 2020, opening a market for such a large-scale project. To construct such a power plant with a million individual panels, each solar cell must be extremely cheap. First Solar, the private company behind the project, decided to use cadmium telluride cells, which require significantly less material and cost less compared to traditional silicon cells (with a slight sacrifice in efficiency), allowing them to manufacture the millions of panels necessary to reach MW levels of power generation1.

The Mojave Desert is the perfect location to try such a novel way of generating renewable power on a large scale. The sun shines at least 300 days each year, annual rainfall reaches only several inches, and the desert is close enough to larger cities to easily connect to the electrical grid, all factors which are crucial to ensure reliable power generation to pay for the large capital costs of such a power plant. The success of an ambitious project like Desert Sunlight has not gone unnoticed as at least 10 other large-scale plants are planned for the same region1, which means the Mojave Desert may soon be swarming with construction sites.

Sacred lands and the tortoises

All of the above sounds great from an economic and clean energy perspective. Unfortunately, that's only part of the story. The Mojave Desert does not reside in a vacuum waiting for power plants to be built. Quite the opposite, as several Native American tribes have lived in the region for generations alongside a diverse desert ecosystem.

The Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi, and Navajo make up the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) that live on a reservation along the Colorado River just east of Desert Sunlight. Companies that want to follow the example set by First Solar must obtain land grants from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow private construction on the federal lands surrounding the reservation. However, much of this region contains sacred lands, buried artifacts, and relics important to these Native American tribes. To try to prevent the destruction and desecration and of artifacts and lands, CRIT has filed a lawsuit against the federal government to try to delay the issue of land grants given to private companies by the BLM2.

The US government has been careful to try to recover and relocate artificats important to the tribes, however the lawsuit claims that the tribes "experience significant spiritual harm when such resources are dug up, relocated or damaged"2. In addition, archaeological surveys often miss artifact locations, leading to their destruction when the ground is dug up in preparation for new plant construction. In their defense, the BLM claims they have met with CRIT representatives and other tribes to ensure respectful treatment of the sacred lands; however, the tribes claim that BLM has not gone far enough to respect their spiritual heritage. Discussions appear to be at an impasse, and plans for new solar plant construction appear to be moving forward despite the lawsuit.

The Native American heritage in the region is not the only case of disruption. Just as wind farms affect bird migration and hydropower plants impact fish breeding grounds, a thousand-acre solar plant will inevitably destroy native species' habitats. To their credit, the federal government mandates that companies determine which species will be affected and provide measures to save them by relocating them to "wildlife refugee camps"3.

Unfortunately, this doesn't work for all species. In the Mojave Desert, a plentiful number of species will be affected - coyotes, desert foxes, horny toads - but the desert tortoise is especially vulnerable. The tortoise creates its home by burrowing deep into the desert ground, and once it has made a home, it doesn't like to leave. The animal stores large amounts of water in its bladder to survive dry seasons but, if frightened or disturbed, the tortoise will release the entire content of its bladder at once, leading to potentially fatal dehydration and making relocation difficult. In addition, studies have shown that desert tortoises are especially resistant to relocation and stubbornly return to their original habitats4. Being so resistant to relocation, it is unclear how energy companies are ensuring the animal's protection3.

Renewable expansion at any cost?

The advantages of large-scale solar are clear: renewable, carbon-emission-free energy generation that can affect hundreds of thousands of homes at once. However, the cultural and environmental issues call into question the benefit of such large-scale power plants and whether they should be seen as a model for future renewable energy generation.

There are other solutions to prevent global warming and replacing fossil fuels through renewable energy, namely residential solar installment as an avenue towards affordable solar energy. Millions of homes around the world have roofs staring into the sky waiting for a useful purpose. Solar installation on individual homes can provide the same result as solar power plants - clean, renewable energy - but using space already available. Implementation of new technology to modernize the electrical grid and create decentralized, distributed electricity generation is already underway to take advantage of this type of individualized solar.

The counterargument to protests against plant construction is simple: of what matter are a small group of tortoises and old artifacts from a few Native American tribes when solar plants promise thousands of megawatts of clean, renewable solar energy for Western states?

The answer to this question is worth considering for future policy decisions. The tortoise is important in its own right. The rights of Native American tribes must be upheld. Each action to conserve one species or serve the needs of a minority population helps shape the philosophy of conservation and justice we as a society propagate into the future. Just as the character of a person is judged by his or her daily acts, our society's legacy will be measured by the sum of its individual actions, large or small.

Beyond the philosophical argument, ecosystems are sensitive organic machinery. The survival of the tortoise means the survival of a connected web of other species in the Mojave Desert. Desert tortoises are known to be prey for coyotes, and thus their disappearance would serve as a shock to the region's food chain5. We are trying to preserve this delicate balance by combating climate change, so it seems counterproductive to introduce new energy generation methods that lead to the similar problems.

Large solar power plants may well have a place in our energy future. But if global warming is a result of human action without knowledge of or concern for downstream environmental consequences, we should heed the strong warning to not choose solutions that replace global warming with other environmental consequences and cultural conflicts that the next generation will have to solve.


1) Sanburn, Josh. "Inside the world's largest solar power plant". Time, February 26, 2015.

2) Sahagun, Louis. "Native Americans challenge construction of Mojave Desert solar plant." Los Angeles Times, December 12, 2014.

3) Butler, Kiera. "Could solar-energy projects destroy the very ecosystems they're meant to save from climate change?" Mother Jones, March 2011.

4) Hinderle, D. et al. "The effects of homing and movement behaviors and translocation: desert tortoises in the western Mojave Desert." Journal of Wildlife Management, 79(1), 137 (2015).

5) Lovich, JE. et al. "Climatic variation and tortoise survival: has a desert species met its match". Biological Conservation, 169, 214 (2014).

Photo Credit

Solar plant photo by Michael Adams at Wikipedia

Gopher tortoise photo by Tigerhawkvok at Wikipedia

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