Landscape-Level Solar Development and Ecological Impacts

Landscape-level impacts have implications for the functioning of ecological processes and the status of species well beyond the boundaries of the facility site, and can result in fundamental changes to the ecology and biology of the region. Landscape-level impacts could result from disruptions of or alterations to ecological processes including habitat connectivity, sand transport systems, carbon sequestration, and surface albedo. To the extent that these landscape-level impacts may disrupt ecological functions and species interactions, the sum of these impacts may determine if, where, and what biodiversity can persist in the face of utility-scale solar development. Therefore, an analysis of the likely landscape-level ecological impacts is a critical component in understanding the potential cumulative environmental effects of these projects.

In order to understand likely landscape-level and cumulative impacts, we developed a method of analysis that can be used to quantify the relationship between the benefit of the renewable electricity generated by these projects and their relative impacts on the surrounding land and water resources. We refer to these analyses as land and water use efficiencies. The quantity of land and water consumed, as well as the facility locations, will determine the type, intensity, and extent of ecological impact. The following section includes:

  1. Our land use efficiency analysis and an examination of how facility size combined with geographic location may affect surrounding wildlife populations and ecological processes.
  2. Our water use efficiency analysis and a discussion of the landscape-level impacts of groundwater use and surface water diversion.
  3. Desert species analysis. Using species as indicators of larger-scale ecosystem health, we illustrate how solar development may affect population-level dynamics in three important desert species: the desert tortoise, the desert bighorn sheep, and native pollinators.