Solar Energy Farms Are Booming in California’s Deserts. Here’s Why Environmentalists Are Concerned

The green energy boom is accelerating in the deserts of California. It’s a boom that’s been encouraged by the Biden administration, which has streamlined renewable energy development within nearly 11 million acres of federal desert land in seven California counties. Many of those projects are industrial-scale solar facilities built by companies like Clearway.

But as the state’s deserts play a growing part in helping to create the green energy revolution, a backlash is also growing among those who argue that desert wilderness is being sacrificed for renewable power goals.

John Woody, vice president at Clearway Energy, says these huge desert solar projects are necessary if California is going to meet its goal of ending dependence on fossil fuels and fighting climate change.

“California needs to add about 6 gigawatts a year of these renewable energy and storage projects to meet their clean energy goals, 90% by 2035 and 100% by 2045,” said Woody in a recent interview at the company’s Daggett project in San Bernardino County. When it opens late next year, the energy plant will be the largest solar power and battery storage facility in the state, and buyers for power are already lined up.

posts in the ground in the desert are part of the construction process for solar energy farms
As part of the construction of industrial-scale solar, desert land is graded and thousands of posts are driven into the ground at Victory Pass. The posts will be topped with solar panel modules moved by motors to track the movement of the sun. Renewable energy companies are attracted to the desert for both the abundance of sunshine and available land. (Saul Gonzalez/KQED)

Still, Woody argues the company’s work is about more than profit: “We’re just doing our small part to help California meet those goals,” he said.

But some environmentalists disagree that such large-scale construction in the desert is necessary.

“There are ways to do this without bulldozing old-growth desert with millennia-old plants, endemic populations of rare organisms, and endangered and threatened species,” said Chris Clarke, associate director of the California Desert Program at the National Parks Conservation Association and the co-host of a podcast about threats to the desert.

Like other environmentalists, Clarke worries about the habitat of endangered animal life, like the desert tortoise, as thousands of acres of desert land are turned into solar power farms. He argues that as California goes all in on solar, the projects should be built on rooftops in coastal cities and suburbs, where most of the power generated will end up anyway, and not hundreds of miles away in the state’s deserts.

a woman and a man dressed warmly smile for a portrait in the desert against a blue sky
Environmentalists Chris Clarke and Alicia Pike are hosts of a podcast, ’90 Miles From Needles,’ that explores dangers to the California desert. They argue that industrial-scale solar projects, which cover thousands of acres, pose a growing threat to the habitat of desert flora and fauna, like the desert tortoise. (Saul Gonzalez/KQED)

“The threat to the desert right now is similar to the threats that other places in North America faced in the 19th century, where people were starting to notice what was there and starting to figure out how they could profit off it,” he said.

Meanwhile, more desert land continues to be prepped for the installation of solar panels, joining solar power facilities that have already been built. Back at Clearway’s Victory Pass solar site, project manager John Moon pointed to the distant desert landscape and all the other solar projects in the area, with names like Desert Sunlight, Desert Harvest and Maverick One. As ground is broken on more projects, the debate will continue over how to balance the goals of creating a renewable energy revolution and protecting the state’s desert lands.

solar panels are seen in the desert in front of a mountain range
Outside the desert community of Daggett in San Bernardino County, San Francisco-based Clearway Energy is building an enormous solar power facility. Clearway is constructing such renewable energy projects on both private and public lands and says the potential for desert solar power is enormous. (Saul Gonzalez/KQED)

Clearway’s John Woody argues that extraordinary efforts are being taken by both private companies and the government to protect the desert’s ecosystems as solar facilities are built. He also says California’s green power goals are so enormous, it’s impossible to make an “either/or” choice between urban rooftop solar versus desert solar.

“There’s no silver bullet. You can’t do one or the other,” said Woody. “You need to sort of do all of the above.”

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