Solar power development in US Southwest could threaten wildlife

Government agencies are considering scores of applications to develop utility-scale solar power installations in the desert Southwest of the United States, but too little is known to judge their likely effects on wildlife, according to an article published in the December 2011 issue of BioScience.

Although solar power is often seen as a “green” energy technology, available information suggests a worrisome range of possible impacts. These concern wildlife biologists because the region is a hotspot of biodiversity and includes many endangered or protected species, notably Agassiz's desert tortoise. It and another tortoise, Morafka's, dig burrows that shelter many other organisms.

The article, by Jeffrey E. Lovich and Joshua R. Ennen of the US Geological Survey's Southwest Biological Science Center, notes that solar energy facilities are poised for rapid development and could cover hundreds of thousands of hectares. Assessments of their effects should count both onsite and offsite effects and include construction and decommissioning as well as the operational phase, the authors point out. Yet there are to date almost no peer-reviewed studies on the impacts of solar installations specifically.

The authors' initial attempt to catalogue the foreseeable effects draws attention to habitat fragmentation caused by roads and power lines, which could restrict gene flow, as well as the production of large amounts of dust through ground-disturbance. Solar plants are also expected to release pollutants such as dust suppressants, rust suppressants, and antifreeze, both in routine operation as well as through spills. They will predictably generate heat, electromagnetic fields, noise, polarized light, and possibly ignite fires. Evaporative ponds, which concentrate toxins, may be used and are a recognized hazard to wildlife. Because wet-cooled turbines need to be supplied with large amounts of water, developers are leaning toward using dry-cooled turbines, but these have a larger “footprint” than wet-cooled ones.

The dearth of reliable information indicates an urgent need for careful, controlled, pre- and post-construction studies of the effects of solar power plants in the Southwest, Lovich and Ennen argue. Such studies could attempt to determine information useful for optimally siting the plants, such as whether damage is minimized if they are concentrated in a few places or dispersed, as well as suggest preferred locations and mitigation possibilities.

After noon EDT on 9 December and for the remainder of the month, the full text of the article will be available for free download through the copy of this Press Release available at www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/.

BioScience, published monthly, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). BioScience publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles covering a wide range of biological fields, with a focus on “Organisms from Molecules to the Environment.” The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is an umbrella organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents nearly 160 member societies and organizations.

The complete list of peer-reviewed articles in the December 2011 issue of BioScience is as follows:

Large-scale Flow Experiments for Managing River Systems.
Christopher P. Konrad, Julian D. Olden, David A. Lytle, Theodore S. Melis, John C. Schmidt, Erin N. Bray, Mary C. Freeman, Keith B. Gido, Nina P. Hemphill, Mark J. Kennard, Laura E. McMullen, Meryl C. Mims, Mark Pyron, Christopher T. Robinson, and John G. Williams
Assessment of Bird-management Strategies to Protect Sunflowers.
George M. Linz, H. Jeffrey Homan, Scott J. Werner, Heath M. Hagy, and William J. Bleier
Forest Biodiversity and the Delivery of Ecosystem Goods and Services: Translating Science into Policy.

Ian D. Thompson, Kimiko Okabe, Jason M. Tylianakis, Pushpam Kumar, Eckehard G. Brockerhoff, Nancy A. Schellhorn, John A. Parrotta, and Robert Nasi

Wildlife Conservation and Solar Energy Development in the Desert Southwest, United States.

Jeffrey E. Lovich and Joshua R. Ennen

Using Multicriteria Analysis of Simulation Models to Understand Complex Biological Systems.

Maureen C. Kennedy and E. David Ford

International Policy Options for Reducing the Environmental Impacts of Invasive Species.

Reuben P. Keller and Charles Perrings

Proactive Conservation Management of an Island-endemic Bird Species in the Face of Global Change.

Scott A. Morrison, T. Scott Sillett, Cameron K. Ghalambor, John W. Fitzpatrick, David M. Graber, Victoria J. Bakker, Reed Bowman, Charles T. Collins, Paul W. Collins, Kathleen Semple Delaney, Daniel F. Doak, Walter D. Koenig, Lyndal Laughrin, Alan A. Lieberman, John M. Marzluff, Mark D. Reynolds, J. Michael Scott, Jerre Ann Stallcup, Winston Vickers, and Walter M. Boyce

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Further information:

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