BLM Solar Energy Study Areas: Using Biology and Science to Guide Development

The Bureau of Land Management Solar Energy Study Areas (SESAs) are almost always quiet, with few signs of life other than windblown plants sparsely distributed across flat and largely featureless lands, and no sound except for the wind rustling brittle branches. During daylight hours, the sun beats down relentlessly. An occasional lizard is seen racing across the desert floor. Droppings from coyotes, rabbits and other small mammals are sometimes visible, and red-tailed hawks or turkey vultures circle infrequently overhead, searching the stark, sparse terrain for prey or carrion.

The Wilderness Society has an ongoing program to evaluate the SESAs, and our team has surveyed these sites with local experts and done additional research to clearly evaluate whether or not these public lands are truly suitable for solar energy development.

Read more in our renewable energy blog series:

- Renewable energy on our public lands: Let's get it right
- Shaping Renewable Energy: How we can minimize the environmental impacts
- Guiding solar to the best places
- Technology will drive America’s race to a clean energy future

The high solar energy potential of the desert has drawn the eye of many utility-scale energy developers searching for suitable venues for their projects. The Wilderness Society has always advocated strongly for public lands protection. In addition, we fully understand the need to develop clean energy on public lands for our future. The desert and the SESAs are a great place to start.

As mentioned in previous blogs, the anticipated release of the draft BLM Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) in mid-December made it a top TWS priority to identify SESAs most worthy of promotion as well as areas that should be off limits. Deserts have both. In some areas, extensive adaptation to the extremes of desert life create biological diversity and unique species that can be very sensitive to human disturbance; here solar power is clearly a bad idea. Other areas have relatively simple ecosystems with well-represented species. Developing some of these areas would create minimal impacts to ecosystems, and likely would help ensure the long-term health of the desert.

The idea of developing habitat in order to save habitat may be counterintuitive, but it makes sense when the long-term effects of climate change are considered. Globally, desert habitats are among those most strongly affected by climate change. These impacts are controlled by global climate patterns. In the desert southwest, precipitation is cyclic, and strongly linked to El Nino and La Nina. The intensity of these cycles will magnify with climate change, and southwest deserts will get drier and hotter. In the Great Basin desert of Nevada, Utah, and Oregon, for example, temperature increases of 0.72 °F per decade and 4% decreases in percent rainfall per decade were observed from 1976-2000. Projecting these changes into the future, the implications of climate change on this desert will be severe unless carbon emissions are drastically reduced. In this context, renewable energy development in western deserts is mandatory.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that 88% of the U.S. population growth between 2000 and 2030 will occur in the Sun Belt, making these areas the most populated in the nation. It is vital that the southwestern U.S. transitions to energy sources that do not generate CO2 and contribute to global warming. If the energy that fuels growth in the Sun Belt is generated using the dirty, carbon intensive technologies of the past, entire desert ecosystems could disappear. Reducing carbon emissions to save deserts will require converting some desert habitat to clean, renewable energy production.

Our evaluations, based on the best available information, enabled us to define which SEZs we could support for solar development. Prior disturbance was important; most SEZs have been extensively modified by human activities. Some, like Afton in southwestern New Mexico, are located in areas where the native plant community has been almost completely replaced and chances for restoration are poor. Others, such as Milford Flats South in southwest Utah, are adjacent to industrial development with low animal habitat value; this area is partially surrounded by complexes of enclosed pig farm facilities, and more are planned. Still others, such as Brenda in southwestern Arizona, are sites that have inherently low productivity and biological diversity, with no known sensitive species occurrences, sparse vegetation, and low wildlife use.

These areas all make good sense for solar development, and we’ll release a report in the coming weeks that will highlight the areas we support as future development zones. We took some photos during our site visits—be sure to check out the slideshow with photos of the SESAs and some comments to explain the process.

The initial areas selected by BLM have already been modified, and these modifications will be detailed in the draft solar PEIS. Further fine-tuning will be needed though and additional solar energy zones should also be established. Through careful consideration of conflicts and tradeoffs, we can strategically develop desert energy resources with minimal impacts and ultimately preserve deserts in the face of increasing resource demands and climate change.