Leaping Into the Sun: A Call for Wisdom in the Age of Solar Development

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Home / Leaping Into the Sun: A Call for Wisdom in the Age of Solar Development

Are we leaping too quickly into solar projects? Image Credit: dynamix

If we’d been able to look into the future of oil, would we have done things differently?  What type of energy would power our homes and factories today? If those who first started to use oil to power homes and factories and cars had understood the large-scale environmental implications of their actions, would they have chosen differently?

There are a lot of us on this planet, and that means that anything that we choose to do on a large scale has the potential for a large impact. These impacts may seem small and manageable at first, but when many accumulate we begin to see the ecological impacts of our actions.

The Impacts of Renewable Energy Development

Now the spotlight shines on the impacts of renewable energy. Renewable energy could very well be the energy that powers many of our future endeavors. To many, it is an all round good thing. How could we go wrong by harnessing the power of the sun to power our lives, just like plants do?  But for one, we are not plants. Humans need to use external technologies to harvest solar energy, and like any technology, solar has an impact.

A study released this week asks us to be wise in our use of solar power. In the article, Wildlife Conservation and Solar Energy Development in the Desert Southwest United States, authors Jeffrey Lovich and Joshua Ennen reveal that we are making decisions about solar energy development even though we lack information about the impacts of this development.

The Impacts of Solar Development on Desert Ecosystems

Do we have sufficient understanding of desert ecosystems? Image Credit: Jadegreen

One of the most famous debates currently raging in the solar storm is the debate over the desert tortoise. These animals move slowly. They take more than a decade to reproduce for the first time. When they’re moved to a different region, they are vulnerable to predators. And they like to live in deserts, which also happen to be the ideal location for new solar power facilities.

But the debate about the impact of solar development is not just about tortoises. The tortoise is simply the slow-moving poster child for all of the desert species that stand to lose from large-scale solar development. Solar panels could stand in the way of migration routes, while roads surrounding the equipment could stop smaller animals from crossing to find food or reproduce. Dry cooling systems could greatly increase the heat in desert environments, changing the plants and animals that can live there. Dust-reducing chemicals could disturb ecosystems by altering water flow in the desert. While people plan to use solar energy as a greener way to meet global and national energy needs and the challenges of climate change, the study’s authors point out that at a local or regional scale, the impacts of solar power development could lead to environmental degradation.

The problem is that many of these statements are speculative. In an interview with Decoded Science, Jeffrey Lovich discussed these issues, and emphasized the fact that we don’t know what really happens to animal and plant populations when we install solar, because we have not studied it.

A Critical Lack of Data About The Impacts of Solar Development

Solar power may impact the desert tortoise. Image by Mark. A. Wilson

Lovich and Ennen decided that, in light of proposed utility-scale solar energy development in the southwestern United States, they would examine the data on the potential impacts of such development on ecosystems and endangered species. They began to search for past studies, and they were stunned to see that only one study had been completed, that one in the 1980s.

Science, development, and technology ask us to make a leap into uncertainty, and these are uncertain times indeed. However, as scientists and developers, people can mitigate some of this uncertainty through studies that examine the potential impacts of solar technologies. The study’s authors ask us to do two things before we leap into solar development.

  1. We need to understand the ecosystems that could play host to a solar project.
  2. We also need to study the impacts of such projects after they happen.

This will allow us to choose wisely when we choose sites for future solar power projects.

Let Some Certainty Guide Technological Transitions

The need to transition to other energy technologies is pressing. So is the need to develop an understanding of the impacts of these technologies before we jump wholeheartedly into a new approach to energy creation.

The article does not call on us to stop the development of renewables, but it does call on us to be wise. By slowing down just a little and developing an understanding of an ecosystem and a technology before placing the two unknowns together, humans would do what we are notoriously bad at doing: thinking before we commit to a large-scale project with potentially large-scale and unknown impacts.

References

Personal interview. Jeffrey R. Lovich. December 9, 2011.

Lovich, Jeffrey E. and Ennen, Joshua R. 2011. Wildlife Conservation and Solar Energy Development in the Desert Southwest, United States. BioScience 61: 982–992. Accessed December 10, 2011.

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