By James Navarro

© David Nunuk/Photo Researchers

© David Nunuk/Photo Researchers
It’s topsy-turvy—California’s Mojave Desert—a place where sheep prefer rocky cliffs over grassy fields. It’s called a desert, but certainly not deserted: Thousands of species of plants and animals call it home. It’s a world full of surprising sights, but soon this quirky landscape will become even more unusual.

Within a year, solar power company BrightSource Energy plans to begin building what will be one of the largest solar facilities in the world, covering parts of Ivanpah Valley in southern California with an estimated 200,000 glass mirrors. Using only sunlight and steam, this futuristic facility could generate enough electricity to power 140,000 homes by the time it becomes fully operational in 2012.

A project like Ivanpah Solar Power Complex could cut carbon dioxide emissions—the main culprit behind global warming—by as much as 500,000 tons each year. This should come as welcome news to conservationists, given that global warming is one of the biggest threats facing wildlife. But the Ivanpah complex is raising some concerns about the environmental cost of clean energy.

When completed, this complex will cover some 4,050 acres of wildlife habitat with fields of mirrors, roads, fences and transmission lines—all within a few miles of the Mojave National Preserve, a federally protected refuge for the imperiled desert tortoise.

Botanist Jim André, director of the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center within the Mojave National Preserve, worries that building large-scale solar plants on public lands could cause irreversible damage. “Nothing will live under the mirrors,” he says, pointing to similar facilities in Asia and Europe.

About a quarter of California is desert, but far from being an empty wasteland, the desert is teeming with life. Some 37 percent of California’s plant species are found here, including the ancient creosote bush, which botanists believe can live as long as 11,000 years. “The impacts of solar power could be devastating over a large area,” André says.  “Roads and human activity will disturb and cut off wildlife habitat. Construction equipment brings in invasive seeds and plants.”

But such concerns haven’t kept California and other western states from increasing their use of renewable power, such as solar and wind energy, and renewable energy developers are also eying nearly a million acres of public lands across the Southwest. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently set the highest renewable energy quota nationwide, requiring California power companies to gradually increase renewable electricity use to 33 percent by 2020 and ordering state agencies to expedite applications for projects.

Further fueling the rush is federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—known as the economic stimulus package. Energy companies that can get shovels into the desert sands by December 2010 could tap these dollars for renewable projects.

Already, applications for 130 projects are pending approval by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. Meanwhile, the Interior Department has cleared the way for development by dividing up more than 1,000 square miles of public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah into 24 solar energy zones where the desert may be leased at rock-bottom prices for solar power research and possibly development. “California is starting to see a new kind of ‘gold rush’,” warns Kim Delfino, Defenders of Wildlife’s California program director. “But this time, it’s going to be our wind, sunlight and public lands that are up for grabs.”

Delfino is leading Defenders’ efforts to identify suitable areas for renewable energy projects that won’t harm sensitive desert lands and wildlife. Defenders and the California Natural Resources Agency, along with other local groups, are working to develop a desert renewable energy conservation plan to guide balanced energy growth in the desert.

“We want to make sure that important desert wildlife habitat doesn’t become a solar sacrifice zone,” she says. “Renewable energy can be part of California’s clean-energy future, but it has to be done right and in the areas that cause the least environmental harm.”

Already-disturbed lands, such as fallow cropland and former industrial sites, are good options for large solar power plants because they require fewer environmental studies and offer easier access to the power-grid without sacrificing additional wildlife habitat. Energy experts also see potential in outfitting homes, offices and urban areas with rooftop solar panels. But today, only an estimated 52,000 solar panels adorn rooftops throughout the Golden State.

Back in Ivanpah Valley, as plans for the solar power plant move forward, the desert has yielded a few more surprises. Recent surveys of the area have revealed that the valley harbors at least 25 desert tortoises and more than a dozen rare plant species—some that have survived for thousands of years. This underscores conservationists’ concerns that solar energy siting is moving too quickly. “The Mojave Desert is a big chunk of what’s left of wild Earth,” says André. “We know so little about this ecosystem, and when it’s gone we lose the chance forever to understand and appreciate what we’ve lost.”

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