Wind farm in the Mojave Desert

I stand before hundreds of giant pinwheels, each churning rapidly.

The whirring they make sounds oddly like the chirping of birds, albeit endlessly repetitive, surprisingly grating ones.

A wind farm: coming soon to a desert near you.

I’m in the Mojave Desert with Conservancy ecologists and conservation planners. They’re checking real-life desert conditions against aerial maps to help determine where solar and wind development can be built without destroying pristine habitat.

Their task is urgent if they are to keep up with the pace of wind and solar development here.

When this Conservancy team visited the desert a year ago, this wind farm didn’t exist.

“This whole area looks completely different from the last time I was here,” said Conservancy ecologist Sophie Parker. “I can’t believe the impact.”

The interest in renewables has created a boom in the desert. Several years ago, development applications began springing up, in part fueled by the idea of the “empty desert,” that seductive myth of a barren land just waiting for a productive human use.

But the desert is also home to endangered species, critical habitat and migration corridors.

At this point, renewable energy development could proceed in two ways: It could spread hodge-podge across the landscape, inevitably mired in lawsuits and controversy. Or, it could be guided by sound, comprehensive plans that avoid ecologically sensitive areas and important wildlife habitat.

And that’s where the Conservancy comes in: No organization has the conservation planning expertise that the Conservancy does. Beginning with ecoregional plans and proceeding with the latest maps providing a comprehensive picture of land uses, the Conservancy has generated the information land managers need to make the best decisions.

Parker and other Conservancy ecologists began by supplying federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management as well as utilities with comprehensive, well-researched maps that show where endangered species live, where wildlife move and migrate and where unique native plant communities grow.

These maps are being used to inform plans that will guide energy development to less sensitive parts of the desert.

Conservancy planner Dick Cameron and others just published a paper in the journal PLoS ONE that describes just how wind and solar development could occur without loss of biodiversity.

The paper “found there to be sufficient area to meet renewable energy goals without developing on lands of relatively high conservation value.”

Now, the Conservancy is involved in a joint state/federal effort called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, again contributing conservation expertise to help an overall energy planning effort — providing the information needed to direct renewable energy in places where it does the least damage to the desert.

These maps are extraordinarily sophisticated, but they’re not fail-proof. Conservancy conservation planner Dick Cameron says that some people search hard to find errors in the maps.

“If someone knows that an area shown on the map as ecologically sensitive is actually a parking lot, they question the whole map,” he says.

That’s why testing the maps on the ground is so important. Throughout the day, the Conservancy ecologists take photos throughout the area, marking them on digital maps to later check against existing data for accuracy.

“It can seem pretty abstract,” says Cameron. “But when you get out on the ground, you can attach a real photo to a map.”

Stories about wind energy in the desert generally have one narrative: That of environmentalists pitted against each other, of those who love desert tortoises fighting those who want to combat climate change.

Data change that narrative.

Clean energy can and should be a win-win,” says Cameron. “With comprehensive planning, you could avoid the conflict that is so often emphasized in the media. But to have a comprehensive plan that protects ecosystems and meets the needs of energy developers, you need data. The Conservancy has taken the lead in compiling those data to support our conservation goals. We’re able to play a unique role in shaping where wind and solar development goes, due to our science-based approach.”

[Image: Wind farm in the Mojave Desert. Image source: Matt Miller/TNC]

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