Solar plants versus desert plants

While it is widely known that certain environmental trade-offs may have to be made in order to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change, one major site of renewable energy development — solar power facilities in deserts — may have unexpected consequences for vulnerable plants in an understudied ecosystem.

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Stephen Grodsky and Rebecca Hernandez at the University of California, Davis, studied 35 plant species in the Mojave Desert, including scrub plants, cacti and Mojave yucca, in the area around one of the world’s largest concentrated solar plants in Ivanpah, California. Native plants in the area provide services not only for the ecosystem but also for indigenous peoples in the area who rely on the plants for food and cultural purposes.

However, Grodsky and Hernandez found that solar plant development negatively affected the richness and evenness of the native scrub and perennial species; the treatment of the ground caused by installation of the solar infrastructure also destroyed biological soil crusts, which seems to allow invasive grasses to spread more widely than they would otherwise. As deserts are home to some of the most vulnerable species and the poorest peoples who rely on that ecosystem, these trade-offs must be further researched and mitigated.

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Correspondence to Ryan Scarrow.

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Scarrow, R. Solar plants versus desert plants. Nat. Plants (2020).

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