Conservation and clean energy team up to fight climate change, not each other

Power tower heliostats

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The Wilderness Society is helping to combat climate change by advancing clean energy in a way that protects wildlands needed for plants and animals to adapt to a warming world.

The climate change story in America’s southwest can be told in two different ways. On one hand, the desert is a “climate hot spot,” meaning the region is especially vulnerable to the prolonged droughts and increased hot spells climate change will bring.

On the other hand, the wind and solar energy resources in the desert offer an important solution to the climate change crisis by providing forms of clean energy that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change.

We need large scale renewable energy to fight climate change, but we also need to protect sensitive wildlands and wildlife struggling to adapt. Balancing these two objectives, especially in the deserts of the southwest has Wilderness Society experts working overtime to ensure that clean energy is built in the right places.

Development and conservation don’t always have conflicting agendas. In the case of renewable energy, they can work hand in hand. Energy development on wildlands simply needs to be correctly implemented from the start—before a single solar panel or wind turbine touches the ground.

This is what we call “smart from the start” clean energy development, and it’s needed to ensure that wind, solar and geothermal projects and subsequent transmission lines are properly sited on America’s public lands. Smart siting means placing energy infrastructure away from sensitive wildlife habitats and migration routes, and lands that possess important ecological and cultural values.

What are the species that inhabit such a dry and hot place, and why would climate change hurt them so much?

Many plants and animals that call the southwest home already live near their physiological limits for water and heat stress. More extreme temperatures and increasing water scarcity as a result of climate change will further push these species to the brink—possibly even to extinction.

Desert tortoise. Photo: Bureau of Reclamation

One of these species, the desert tortoise, is particularly vulnerable to more severe and prolonged droughts. Even scenarios that predict “moderate” climate change would result in an 88 percent decline in desert tortoise habitat in the Sonoran Desert. To avoid further threatening the species (which is already on the decline), energy development absolutely cannot occur on the desert tortoise’s key habitat areas.

Desert bighorn sheep. Photo: Lake Mead NRA

As the climate of America’s deserts changes, many plant and animal species will need large, unbroken landscapes to adapt. Wildlands that provide migration corridors and room to roam will allow desert bighorn sheep, for example, to become more resilient over time to a changing climate.

Map of pre-approved Solar Energy Zones across the American southwest. These zones, designated by the Bureau of Land Management, are well suited for utility-scale production of solar energy.


Guiding development to clean energy zones in the midst of climate change

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, President Obama set a goal as part of his ambitious Climate Action Plan to permit 20,000 Megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020. The Wilderness Society wants to see this clean energy goal met and we’re bringing our expertise to find places with low ecological conflict for these wind, solar and geothermal projects to be built.

In the Southwest, this has involved working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), solar developers and local communities to identify Solar Energy Zones. These zones are pre-screened areas that provide great solar resources and, even better, few conflicts with wildlands, wildlife and outdoor recreation.

The BLM has currently designated 19 of these Solar Energy Zones in the Southwest. By identifying pre-screened areas and offering industry incentives for development in these zones, the BLM can create certainty for solar developers while avoiding impacts to wildlands, especially those sensitive to climate change. We want to ensure energy companies are rewarded for building a project in a Solar Energy Zone—through lower costs and more efficient environmental review.

De Tilla Gulch Solar Energy Zone in Colorado. Photo: BLM Solar

The Wilderness Society supports this zone-based approach because it can address both climate change solutions and climate change impacts.

The Wilderness Society is also working to mitigate impacts wherever renewable energy development occurs, resulting in protection of key wildlands that are important for climate resiliency, such as lands that provide a transition between lower and higher elevations which will be important for species that need to adapt.

California: Development areas in the desert account for climate change

In the California desert, The Wilderness Society is engaged in a similar planning process for clean energy projects that are currently being rolled out by federal and state agencies. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) will identify “Development Focus Areas,” which are comparable to the Solar Energy Zones that exist across the Southwest.

The DRECP will also identify conservation areas by incorporating climate change adaptation research into the planning decisions. This means taking into account water stress, movement of vegetation zones and impacts on sensitive species. We believe this process should be a model for smart clean energy planning elsewhere.

All hands on deck to transition to clean energy

While The Wilderness Society’s expertise involves clean energy development on America’s public lands, we recognize that an “all hands on deck” approach is needed to combat climate change and move toward a clean energy economy. That’s why we’re also working to incentivize investment in clean energy, advance energy efficiency and help our members go solar by installing clean energy on their own roof.

By being solution oriented and taking a “smart from the start” approach to our transition to clean energy, we can all help to reduce carbon pollution while keeping America’s wildlands strong and resilient to a changing climate.