As we know by now, every cause has an effect. And even the best of causes — such as ramping up solar power in an attempt to slow climate change — come with some not-so-good consequences. In the case of the Mojave Desert, native flora and fauna suffer as panels proliferate.

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The federal government has made hundreds of thousands of acres in the Mojave, which straddles Nevada and California, available for solar plants. But while the desert might look like open space to the untrained eye, it’s not uninhabited. The Mojave is home to a complicated ecosystem that includes bighorn sheep, mountain lions, roadrunners, gila monsters, giant desert hair scorpions, yucca and cacti.

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A study published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability looks at how solar energy development affects desert plants. Study authors Steven M. Grodsky and Rebecca R. Hernandez focused on the Ivanpah installation. At 3,500 acres, it’s one of the biggest solar power plants in the world and is about the same size as LAX.

As the study authors point out, “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.” The study compared two different ways of clearing land to build a solar plant — blading and mowing — and contrasted that with a control group.

“Blading” is the euphemism desert developers use for clearcutting. This is the fastest and cheapest way to clear land, using a bulldozer and saying sayonara to aboveground plants, plus about a foot of soil and roots. “Blading is going to make deserts the barren wasteland that people think deserts are,” said Grodsky, as reported in Huffington Post. The study found that blading encourages invasive grasses to take the place of the native plants that were cleared away.

A more intensive and eco-friendlier way to prepare the ground is by “mowing.” This leaves all plants less than a foot tall and the soil undisturbed. Yucca and taller cacti are goners, unless they’re replanted by hand. This is how the endangered desert tortoises survived; they were rounded up and relocated to another site before construction began.

Some environmentalists are suggesting that instead of beginning with undeveloped land, solar plants could take over land that has been used for other purposes but has since been abandoned. Repurposing Nevada’s 2.8 million acres of old mine sites is a leading idea, though developers might have to contend with contamination and other problems of old infrastructure.

John Zablocki, Southern Nevada conservation director for the Nature Conservancy, urges developers to look into reusing old industrial sites for solar power. “It is an absolute imperative to tackle the threat of climate change,” Zablocki said, but “in the process, we don’t want to lose or accelerate the loss of the very things that we’re trying to protect from climate change in the first place.”

Via Huffington Post

Image via David Mark