Sustainable Solar Energy Development in Desert Ecosystems

Deserts of the southwestern United States are an exceptional setting for ground-mounted solar panel arrays that convert sunlight into electricity. Across the southern half of the United States as a whole, utility-scale solar arrays could potentially generate more than 2,000 gigawatts of electricity by 2050. Little is known, however, about the effects of solar energy development on desert ecosystems. In particular, bulldozing, mowing, and other methods used to prepare a site for ground-mounted solar arrays could facilitate biodiversity loss and diminish the environmental and economic benefits that healthy desert ecosystems provide.

Steven M. Grodsky, Natural Resources and the Environment, is leading research to elucidate the effects of constructing utility-scale solar arrays on desert ecosystems in Nevada. In collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management, researchers will assess desert plant communities before, during, and after installation of solar arrays in the Mojave Desert. In particular, the research will determine responses and resiliency of the desert plant community to various site preparation practices and identify energy-development decisions that are conducive to desert plant conservation.

Solar and other forms of renewable energy are needed, both to meet the energy demands of a growing human population and to supplant fossil fuels in order to mitigate climate change. This research will provide science-based management recommendations for sustainable and conservation-minded solar energy development in deserts, with an eye toward minimizing negative effects of solar energy production on desert plants, including cacti and Mojave yucca, and maximizing ecosystem resiliency among desert plant communities.

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$902 Thousand spanning 5 years