Massive Solar Farm Clears a Path Through the Mojave Desert

For some, the Gemini Solar Project represents a big step forward on the path to clean energy. But in southern Nevada, conservationists witness the cost on the landscape.

Northeast of Las Vegas, beneath the Muddy Mountains and among the sandy flats and washes of the Moape River watershed, tortoises make their burrows beneath the delicate soil that holds the desert life together. These desert tortoises embody the truest sense of desert solitaire. They spend most of their 80-year life spans in their burrows, emerging at a deliberate pace to eat native grasses and wildflowers, dig shallow pans in the dirt to collect whatever rainwater the desert provides, and find a mate. They’ve evolved in the dryness and heat of a fragile but rich ecosystem, alongside collared lizards and desert iguanas, sidewinder and gopher snakes, kit foxes, catclaw acacias, cholla cacti, creosote bushes, and flowering yuccas.

Mojave desert
The Department of the Interior appears all set to approve what would be the largest solar farm in the US generating 690 megawatts on 7,100 acres of public land in the Mojave Desert. Photo by N i c o l a/Flickr.

This is the Mojave Desert, one of the largest wildernesses areas in the contiguous United States. “And I’d like to see it stay that way,” says Michael Tuma, a tortoise biologist and chairperson of the nonprofit Desert Tortoise Council . “But that’s tough in the face of all these new pressures.”

In his nearly two decades studying tortoises in the Mojave Desert, Tuma has seen various threats to the shelled reptile in its home range on federal land. Off-road vehicle recreation, livestock grazing, highway development, fossil fuel industry infrastructure, predators like coyotes and ravens that piggyback off of human development into the tortoise’s range. “Everybody’s trying to use the desert for something,” Tuma says.

Now, utility-scale solar energy has been added to the public lands free-for-all.

In December, the Department of the Interior released an environmental impact report for the Gemini Solar Project , indicating that the agency will approve the project after a public comment period that ended on January 27. Once constructed, Gemini will be the largest solar farm in the US, generating 690 megawatts on 7,100 acres of public land, and representing “a significant increase in renewable energy capacity for Nevada and the West,” as the Bureau of Land Management’s district manager for southern Nevada Tim Smith said in a recent statement. Interior also notes that the construction of Gemini would create 2,000 jobs.

The Gemini Solar Project does represent a significant push for renewable energy by an administration that has otherwise acted in favor of fossil fuel extraction. In fact, as President Trump has attempted to roll back dozens of regulations to benefit the fossil fuel industry, Gemini would be the third large-scale solar project on public lands approved by the Trump administration. For many, the project represents the latest victory in an ongoing process that started under the Obama administration to decarbonize the utility energy sector.

But for some conservationists, solar development by the traditional utility business model on public lands is a late-twentieth century land use practice masquerading as a twenty-first century solution. These solar plants, they say, are destructive to fragile desert ecosystems like the extractive energy infrastructure they’re meant to replace.

“We’re chipping away at the biodiversity that’s out there in these deserts,” says Laura Cunningham, cofounder of the nonprofit Basin and Range Watch . “The price of utility-scale solar is coming down, but it’s at a price of the environment.”

Mojave desert
The environmental repercussions of large-scale solar farms that are right in the ranges of desert tortoises and other endangered species have been steep, some conservationists say. For the Mojave desert tortoise, this development not only erases habitat but also blocks gene flow from one population to the next — a threat that pushes the tortoise closer to extinction. Photo by Dana Wilson/BLM.

Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich started Basin and Range Watch in 2008, around the time that utility-scale solar projects were just starting to become mainstream in Nevada and Southern California due to Obama-era green energy subsidies. Many areas of the Mojave Desert — “where the sun burns hotter and there is easier access to transmission lines,” wrote a solar industry executive in a Los Angeles Times editorial — saw much of this renewable energy development, particularly as California and Nevada committed to clean energy goals and the price of solar technology decreased.

But despite the obvious benefits to clean energy, Cunningham started noticing destructive repercussions on the ground, right in the ranges of desert tortoises and other endangered species.

“You get bulldozers and scrapers and level the desert flat,” she says. “Then you’re driving over this with construction machinery to deliver your boxes of solar panels, pounding in posts that hold the panels, and building inverters and storage units. By the time you’re finished, the area is reduced to dust.”

For the Mojave desert tortoise, this development not only erases habitat but also blocks gene flow from one population to the next — a threat that pushes the tortoise closer to extinction.

The Mojave desert tortoise has been listed as threatened by the federal Endangered Species Act since 1990. For many of these projects, ESA protections means that the BLM and project developers are forced to translocate tortoises from the project site during construction. That means that biologists sweep the area looking for burrows, remove tortoises, and relocate them to neighboring valleys.

Though desert tortoise translocation has been widely used as a form of wildlife management around solar and other development projects, some biologists aren’t convinced that the method works as well some studies suggest . Even if tortoises initially survive translocation, they face long-term challenges as some risk the journey back to their original burrows while others compete for food and water with the original residents of their new home. “Usually about a third will die, another third will do okay, and another third will try to find their way back to where they were. Of those, a lot will die as well,” says Tuma, based on his observations of the aftermath of translocations throughout the last decade. “You end up losing half of the tortoises.”

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion of the Gemini Solar Project, translocated tortoises will then be reintroduced to the site to live beneath the panels, though the agency admits that this would be a “ big experiment ” to see if tortoises could live beneath the arrays.

Either way, it’s not just the desert tortoise that these developments threaten. Last April, Cunningham and Emmerich submitted a petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service to federally list the threecorner milkvetch, an endemic plant that inhabits the sandy flats where Gemini will be constructed.

Last week, PV Magazine published an article claiming that solar panels actually improve the landscape by offering shade to tortoises and desert plants, particularly where FWS biologists have planted seedlings beneath the arrays and watered them. “Any desert ecologist will laugh at that,” says Cunningham, who explains that these desert species have evolved specifically to a landscape of intense sun and little human contact. The threecorner milkvetch, for instance, is covered in small silver hairs that keep the plant from overheating. And desert tortoises thermoregulate, balancing their time in and out of their burrows. “They don’t need us building shade structures for them,” Cunningham says.

Plus, disturbances caused by human development have a cascade effect on the landscape as well. “Any activity on these soils is going to compact those soils, which will render the area inhospitable to native wildflowers but makes it more attractive to invasive plants and invasive grasses,” says Tuma, who has seen this process happen even on tortoise habitat disturbed only by his and his fellow researchers’ footsteps. “Anything that disturbs soils essentially changes the nature of the plants that are available for tortoises to eat.”

Beyond the Gemini Solar Project specifically, this debate sheds light on a larger question concerning energy development on public lands: Is there a better way to implement renewable energy solutions without following the destructive land use practices of the fossil fuel industry?

For many conservationists, the answer lies with distributed energy resources like rooftop solar panels and microgrids , which are becoming more attractive particularly in California in lieu of weathering future PG&E shutdowns. “We haven’t even begun to tap into distributed energy because of the policy roadblocks,” says Cunningham. “You fly over Las Vegas and there’s millions of square feet of empty roofs baking in the sun. That alone can be a hundred Gemini Projects, I’m sure.”

Some researchers have shown that solar arrays don’t even work best in the hot desert environment. Rather, solar panels prefer cooler environments, like farmland and prairies. According to researchers at Oregon State University , converting less than one percent of global agricultural land to solar panels would fulfill global electric energy demand. This doesn’t necessarily mean replacing food with solar — but using the two together in an agrivoltaics system , in which certain crops and solar panels are mutually beneficial.

In the meantime, some scientists and conservationists like Cunningham are concerned that the “all of the above” approach to clean energy — the idea that we need both distributed energy resources and utility-scale solar to reach renewable energy goals — puts desert ecosystems at unnecessary risk as we figure out the policy mechanisms to shift toward distributed energy.

And still, others simply don’t want the desert to be seen as a wasteland waiting to be put to human use. “It’s an incredible, diverse place,” Tuma says. “There’s a lot of life out here.”

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