Solar thermal power plants are being built at an increasing rate across the dry American south and west.
As the New York Times reports today, in addition to two prototype plants that recently started operating, a further 10 are in the advanced planning stage in California, Arizona and Nevada.
“On sunny afternoons, those 10 plants would produce as much electricity as three nuclear reactors,” says the Times.
Accompanying the article is a photograph of a solar thermal plant stretching for what seems like miles into the Nevada desert. Up to its edge, plants adapted to desert conditions clearly thrive. Where the solar reflectors are installed, the soil has been scraped flat and clear of all apparent life.
While deserts may perhaps look dead, they are — of course — thriving ecosystems.
Solar thermal power may well be less globally harmful than power generated by coal, for example. But it’s good to be reminded that it also comes at its own environmental price.
Wikipedia currently has this to say about the impact of solar power on the Mojave Desert landscape:
Solar thermal power plants are large and seem to use a lot of land, but when looking at electricity output versus total size, they use less land than hydroelectric dams (including the size of the lake behind the dam) or coal plants (including the amount of land required for mining and excavation of the coal). While all power plants require land and have an environmental impact, the best locations for solar power plants are deserts or other land for which there might be few other human uses.
Sure, not many people live there. But let’s not forget the impact of our actions on the snakes, spiders, hawks, owls, jackrabbits, bighorn sheep, coyotes, etc. for whom the desert is home, not to mention the extraordinary plants that flourish in dry environments.