Giant wind turbines are powered by strong winds in front of solar panels in Palm Springs, Calif. on March 27, 2013. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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California’s deserts are transforming into a sea of solar panels, as the state seeks to reach ambitious renewable energy goals. But a growing group of residents and environmentalists say the move is coming at a significant price to wildlife, nearby residents’ health, native lands, and even property values.
With 776 solar power plants producing approximately 17 percent of the state’s electricity, the Golden State is awash with bright silver and blue panels dotting hundreds of thousands of acres.
Millions of panels have been installed east of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert over the last five years, changing the look of the landscape in the process, and bringing with it a new set of challenges for nearby residents, according to experts.
Dustin Mulvaney, a professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University said he is concerned about their impact on public land, including damage to ecosystems and soil and high water demand.
“There is potential concern for groundwater depletion,” Mulvaney told The Epoch Times.
A solar panel range is seen in what was once a field used for agriculture, in California’s Central Valley near Huron, Calif. on July 23, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
A California law passed in 2014 regulates groundwater usage and is designed to preserve water supplies, but it does not apply to public lands.
Such are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that oversees 245 million acres of land—15 million of which are located in California.
The bureau has prioritized 870,000 acres nationally for solar development, with more than 200,000 acres already sporting solar panels in California, according to its website.
But concerns about the impacts on wildlife have some advocacy groups calling for a halt in such expansion until guidelines can be implemented, as animals are being displaced and migratory patterns altered due to the increasing quantity of such solar farms.
Birds have been observed mistaking the shiny blue solar panels for water, and the mistake is costly, as the extreme heat from the reflective material can instantly incinerate them, according to experts.
Desert tortoises are being killed and displaced, and bighorn sheep and deer are restricted from accessing some areas by six-foot barbed wire fencing surrounding such solar farms, leading to a loss of grazing habitat and restricting some creatures from navigating trails and accessing water sources, according to environmentalists.
And corridors designed to allow movement for wildlife are inviting predators—as the wily carnivores are learning to wait for prey emerging from the narrow strips of grass—into communities, with an increase in coyote and mountain lion sightings since the fences were installed, according to residents.
Health Problems Driving Some Residents Away
Residents of Lake Tamarisk Desert Resort located halfway between Phoenix and Los Angeles in Desert Center, California, say the construction of such solar farms is causing considerable nuisance, with some reporting health problems because of increased dust in the area.
Patti Cockcroft said she has been seeking medical attention since she started experiencing a deep bronchial cough in March after spending two months in her desert home impacted by high winds and dust from a nearby solar field.
Tests are currently underway to determine whether she has valley fever—a serious illness associated with severe health complications and potential fatality—and doctors have told her the extreme conditions could have triggered a severe asthma attack.
“It’s not very enticing to think of going back to the desert,” Cockcroft said in an email sent to The Epoch Times.
Experts agree that issues related to construction-related soil removal and the resulting human exposure to dust particles are alarming.
“The real public health issue is valley fever,” Mulvaney, of San Jose State, told The Epoch Times.
Investigations conducted in 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control uncovered an increased incidence of valley fever in solar farm construction employees resulting from working in dusty conditions where fungal spores in the soil become airborne.
After receiving reports of workplace injuries associated with valley fever, investigators discovered that solar farm workers in California were 4.4 to 210.6 times more likely to suffer from the illness than others working and living in the same counties.
Dusty conditions can also lead to lung disease silicosis, which is of particular concern for miners manufacturing solar panels and for workers and nearby residents during the installation process, according to experts.
Compounding Problems Affecting Communities
A vehicle pileup near Los Angeles in 2013 was partially blamed on a solar development project after six were injured when a massive dust cloud forced the closure of the Antelope Valley Freeway.
Efforts to mitigate dust by solar companies are compounding problems for some local communities, according to Teresa Pierce, another Lake Tamarisk resident.
According to Pierce, such companies drive diesel-powered water trucks, creating noise and dust pollution while draining aquifers not refilled regularly by nature.
“Their water trucks are going round and round our pumping station,” Pierce told The Epoch Times. “It’s been a dust bowl with constant construction noise.”
Prior attempts to communicate with the county, the Bureau of Land Management, and solar company representatives have been met with resistance, according to residents.
“They say they’re trying to work with the community, but no, they’re not,” Pierce told The Epoch Times. “They brought fake maps when they came and gave us a presentation.”
While requesting a moratorium on future solar farms within five miles of Lake Tamarisk, local advocates told lawmakers that their community is being turned into an “island in a dead solar sea.”
Property values in communities near solar farm installations have been impacted, with once desirable lots now becoming difficult to sell, according to residents.
Other communities say the solar farms are too close for comfort.
Those around Lake Tamarisk have crept up on a residential community of approximately 500 with some residents reporting that panels are planned for installation approximately 750 feet from homes they’ve lived in for decades.
Residents have reached out to every responsible party, from local representatives all the way up to President Joe Biden, with the only response coming from Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), who has agreed to meet for a discussion, according to documents provided to The Epoch Times.
Another issue complicating matters is the destruction of cultural resources on tribal lands.
The Mojave Desert and other areas where installation is occurring are situated on the native territory with historical value. The loss of artifacts, ancestral burial sites, and cultural landscapes is affecting tribal communities with limited resources to contest new development, according to a series of lawsuits filed over the last 12 years seeking to stop solar project development on tribal lands.
“The project is located… in a region rich in cultural resources that have been used since time immemorial,” Colorado River Indian Tribe Councilwoman Amanda Barrera said in a statement released when the tribe sued Riverside County in 2014 to halt development. “These resources have remained intact for millennia, but now are threatened by ever-increasing pressure to develop … utility-scale solar facilities.
All attempts by tribal elders to stop solar projects with litigation have failed, with federal judges repeatedly upholding the government’s right to utilize and develop them.