Solar Development: Super Bloom or Super Bust for Desert Species?

From UC Davis

Rare Desert Plants More Sensitive to Solar Development

  • by Kat Kerlin
  • May 03, 2021

Throughout the history of the West, human actions have often rushed the desert — and their actions backfired. In the 1920s, the Colorado River Compact notoriously overallocated water still used today by several Western states because water measurements were taken during a wet period.

More currently, operators of the massive Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert are spending around $45 million on desert tortoise mitigation after initial numbers of the endangered animals were undercounted before its construction.

A study published in the journal Ecological Applications from the University of California, Davis, and UC Santa Cruz warns against another potential desert timing mismatch amid the race against climate change and toward rapid renewable energy development.

“Our study suggests that green energy and species conservation goals may come into conflict in California’s Mojave Desert, which supports nearly 500 rare plant species as well as a rapidly expanding solar industry,” said lead author Karen Tanner, who conducted the work as a Ph.D. student at UC Santa Cruz under a grant led by UC Davis assistant professor Rebecca R. Hernandez.

Tanner spent seven years teasing out the demography of two native desert flowers — the rare Barstow woolly sunflower (E. mohavense) and the common Wallace’s woolly daisy (E. wallacei), comparing their performance both in the open and under experimental solar panels. The authors wondered, how would desert-adapted plants respond to panels that block light and rainfall?Would rare species respond differently than common species to these changes? 

These aren’t easy questions to unearth. At one point, Tanner glued tiny seeds to individual toothpicks to gather emergence data. At another, she scoured the desert floor on hands and knees to count emerging seedlings of the rare sunflower — about the size of a thumbnail at maturity.

Closeup of small yellow desert flower, the rare Barstow woolly sunflower, next to a quarter.
The rare Barstow woolly sunflower. (Karen Tanner)
A closeup of a small yellow flower, the common Wallace's woolly daisy, nest to a quarter in Mojave Desert
The common Wallace’s woolly daisy. (Karen Tanner)

Super bloom surprises

Such painstaking commitment is one reason no previous studies have modeled species’ responses to photovoltaics at the population level. It takes time and overcoming tricky logistical and mathematical challenges to model little-known species interactions in the evasive desert. What is nowhere in sight one year may thrive the next.

That element of surprise is what makes “super blooms” so special and so captivating. Those bursts of wildflowers blanket expanses of desert landscapes after especially wet years and are believed to be critical to the long-term persistence of desert annual populations.

Mojave Desert blanketed in yellow flowers
Wildflowers blanket the desert near the UC Davis study site in the Mojave Desert. (Karen Tanner)

The study found that solar panel effects on plant response were strongly influenced by weather and physical features of the landscape. During the 2017 super bloom, panel shade negatively affected population growth of the rare species, but had little effect on its common relative. 

The study suggests that rare species may be more sensitive to solar development impacts than common species. It highlights the potential for solar panel effects to vary among species, as well as over space and time.

A question of time

The study provides an example of the importance of taking the necessary time to understand an ecosystem before irrevocably changing it.

“The desert — and many other biomes — don’t respond on our timescales,” said Hernandez, co-director of the Wild Energy Initiative through the UC Davis John Muir Institute. “If we want to understand them, we need to study them on the timescales they operate. Otherwise, it is like taking a photo of a moving train and calling it a shipping container. Racing to build renewable energy in places that have already been skinned of their biology makes sense — let’s not wait to put solar on existing rooftops. But in natural environments, we need to listen and observe first.”

Funding for the research was provided by the California Energy Commission.


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May 5, 2021 2:17 pm

“What is nowhere in sight one year may thrive the next.”
— or even the next acre. Often small storms provide rain over a narrow swath or patch. This kind of phenomenon exemplifies why human interference in any environment is complex and permanent.

For me, I love the Mojave, but few will ever appreciate it, and fewer still will live there. I happen to think people are more important than toroises, yet alone wildflowers. Perhaps the Mojave would make a great engineered inland sea for the supply of desalinized water, agriculture, and microclimate cooling for the whole southwest. Sorry turtles, better start evolving now.

Curious George
Reply to  dk_
May 5, 2021 4:11 pm

I wonder what the tortoises will do with all that money.

Reply to  dk_
May 5, 2021 6:33 pm

The paths of thunderstorms that escaped California leave swaths of green and flowers in the weeks following the storm.
It looks like a wonderful river of plant life bordered by normal Mojave summer growth.

More currently, operators of the massive Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert are spending around $45 million on desert tortoise mitigation after initial numbers of the endangered animals were undercounted before its construction.”

Wildlife counters, hired by Ivanpah, undercount a tortoise that resembles a rock and burrows?
What a surprise!? Not!

Just like their claim the solar panels and fencing wouldn’t affect desert tortoise burrows and lives?

Reply to  ATheoK
May 5, 2021 7:21 pm

Those tortoises are secretly immigrants from Sonora and escapees from Twentynine Palms military reservation. The first because they don’t honor our borders (the tortoises), and the second because tanks don’t care. It just takes them a while to get there.
Seriously, they have no documentation for migration patterns for slow-moving animals with low population for the same reasons as stated in the lede and title — people just move too fast to be able to understand.
And “Tortoise MItigation” means to make an engineered method for tortoises to live alongside technology. More than slightly implying that it can be done, but no evidence that it should be done. Even the people who truly, truly, deeply care about tortoises more than their fellow (arguable) humans are a small minority that would not affect a democratically arrived decision to go ahead and build.
Just don’t waste any more on polluting, fake renewables. Do something truly useful with the land or leave it alone.

Reply to  dk_
May 5, 2021 10:00 pm

Indeed. I was driving through passing I believe Baker on I-15 towards Cali. Look out to seen rain falling in a narrow but long band (not like a wide band typical storm front, like a sharpie going point first).

It was falling on a patch of green surrounded by dry desert from eye to see.

That specific spot, had been having rain, over and over again only there. Precise.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  dk_
May 6, 2021 8:42 pm

But the ecological web spreads very wide. I remember being on a field trip to Death Valley during Spring Break, in the ’70s, during a Super Bloom. There was about 1 sunflower plant per square meter. On every plant was a large, fat hornworm that looked like a tomato hornworm. They provide food for predators in both the caterpillar and moth stage.

Reply to  Vuk
May 5, 2021 2:34 pm

don’t know what happened there, copyright images ?

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Vuk
May 5, 2021 7:42 pm

Pro Tip: delete images posted with a comment for a few minutes after you post.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
May 6, 2021 2:49 am

that is exactly what I did !

Reply to  Vuk
May 6, 2021 2:21 am

The link broke something, somehow. I can’t even reply to the post directly.

Those aren’t fungi. They’re “blueberries” – hematite spherules that cover huge portions of the martian surface. The claims of new ones growing appear to be dust shifting around and uncovering previously covered ones, or proportionally uncovering more of the already visible ones.

Reply to  Archer
May 6, 2021 2:53 am

Yes you can, Big + & – are voting signs, and left pointing curved arrow is a ‘Reply’ sign (flipped mirror image of the original reply arrow), clicking it and doe’s it. Weird!

Reply to  Vuk
May 6, 2021 3:07 am


Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Vuk
May 6, 2021 8:46 pm

I was going to ask you how you did that. When mine show up at all, they are smaller than I want.

Philip Mulholland
May 5, 2021 2:35 pm

The tiles on my roof support a robust flora of moss and lichens which I happen to like and consider to be a benefit to the local fauna.
Our garden birds seem to agree with my assessment judging by the way they search for mites in the moss dislodged into the rones.

H. D. Hoese
May 5, 2021 2:49 pm
Seems to be a good paper showing effects of shade and interaction of water, pdf preprint available. But another wow! from abstract “…lack of rainfall was an overwhelming constraint..” We talked to a botanist studying fire in Big Bend National Park. He noted that it was a sign of success, took rain to produce the more easily burned grasses. Went to school with several studying desert, traveled and hiked in a few, seen impressive rare flower blooms. Been to a couple of desert places where some are living [maybe at least for awhile] really isolated, no light in sight for many miles, also to pavement. Not long ago in Big Bend camped next to a geology field trip when someone heard in rest room a complaint from a student who thought it was just sitting behind a computer. Good to know that there are still places where students are getting properly tested.

Reply to  H. D. Hoese
May 5, 2021 3:11 pm

Why is a desert a desert ?
3 trillion $ question. 😀 😀 😀

Reply to  Krishna Gans
May 5, 2021 6:59 pm

In places like the Mojave, it has been a desert for a very long time.
Just another place where life adapted to the surrounding environment flourishes.

Where desert ticks that carry Borrelia, the cause of tick-borne relapsing fever, parasitize tortoises and also feed on other nearby creatures?

Robert of Texas
May 5, 2021 2:52 pm

Let’s see…a complete waste of money thrown at a nonexistent problem is harming rare desert species…

Sounds like liberals at work. I know! More government will solve this!

Reply to  Robert of Texas
May 5, 2021 3:55 pm

Yeah, but it is another reason why carbon neutral and zero carbon are lies.

Sam Capricci
Reply to  Robert of Texas
May 5, 2021 5:41 pm

Yes, but if they were building a housing development and golf course, you can bet the “rare desert species” would hold up the development for years in the courts because of the radical leftists/environmentalists. But when it comes to solar or wind, they don’t care how many species would be killed off.

Pat from kerbob
Reply to  Sam Capricci
May 5, 2021 7:59 pm

Same way a hummingbird nest (not endangered) shuts down transmountain pipeline expansion construction for 4 months, but no wind turbine ever gets shutdown for killing birds.

Rud Istvan
May 5, 2021 2:55 pm

Been to the Mohave several times. Beautiful fascinating place.
The way to preserve it is to lose all the solar and build small footprint, flexible, efficient, grid inertia providing CCGT. Costs much less, works much better. You would think Cali might it.
But nope. And then this study would not have been necessary.

Reply to  Rud Istvan
May 5, 2021 4:00 pm

The grid is the problem. Large blackouts are caused by lack of grid response. Westinghouse (with Testla) was right about A/C wrong about distribution, Turns out Edison was right about distributed local power generation (almost like cellular network communications) but wrong about D/C. Now we have idiots favoring D/C generation for a grid network — two wrongs make a wronger. What we need is what DOE told Carter in 1977 — local, small, shareable, private generation with metering to show who gets to pay who for how much.
You could have 36 hour battery backup and a multifuel generator, and solar panels, and a small wind turbine on your house for less than a cheap compact car. You’d pay less than half of what you pay now for electricity, and about the same for natural gas. You’d only use them when they were cheaper or more available than the grid. If the grid was down, you could share with your neighborhood, and get paid back. Your local utility, your local government, and your local greens won’t let you. Now get mad.

Curious George
Reply to  dk_
May 5, 2021 4:46 pm

“Your local utility, your local government, and your local greens won’t let you.”
In Caliente, CA the problem is where to get such an equipment. Please advise.

Reply to  Curious George
May 5, 2021 7:41 pm

You won’t get a smart meter, so forget the sharing and getting money back parts. Code and state regulations may prevent you from legally operating a generator, but Generac makes good ones, among many others (and potentially many, many more since the technology is pretty much standard) labeled for “emergency backup” use. A good IT service catalog (I like BlackBox) will let you price out a server-room lead acid storage backup battery set. Opt for AGM or NiMH batteries if you can. You’ll need a very small climate controlled storage room — a commercial garden shed (est 4’w*8’l*6’h, google for meters)and a small heat pump. Off grid “preppers” and home builders might be able to help. You might find some in an RV catalong.
Control and monitoring equipment, plumbing hookup to local natural gas AND demand delivery of propane, butane, or MAPP gas are up to you.
Small windmills and solar pv cells are ubiquitous and sometimes subsidized, but be warned that anywhere that will install your PV panels for free and guaranteeing you lifetime electricity prices owns the rights to the power, and won’t let you manage it yourself. They’re already getting subsidies long before they are integrated with the local utility (which must happen via regulatory changes still pending in your state), and PV must be replaced in about 25 years.
Hardly any of this is packaged as an integrated system, mostly as a roll-your-own solution. I’ve done, and seen done pieces and parts of the system. But instead of cars, Tesla should have been building these, and any small engineering firm could be pushing an integrated set out the door faster than they could build them, if not for localized utility monopolies, regulation, licensing, code and permitting; over-reaching enviro regulation, and an unhinged prejudice against natural gas.

Reply to  Curious George
May 6, 2021 8:40 am

Not a large retail area out there at Caliente since the Union Pacific stopped burning coal in their steam locomotives. I see your problem.

Reply to  dk_
May 5, 2021 10:03 pm

Why??? Why not let the utilities choose the cheapest, reliable methods and earn their keep maintaining it? Why do I have to buy the cow when all I want is the milk?

May 5, 2021 3:06 pm

Our study suggests that green energy and species conservation goals may come into conflict in California’s Mojave Desert,

Have a look at regions where windmills misshape the landscape and you will see, what conflicts birds, bats and insects may have with “dead-green” energy generating may have.
It’s much eaysier to study in shorter time.

Reply to  Krishna Gans
May 5, 2021 7:08 pm

Our study suggests that green energy and species conservation goals may come into conflict in California’s Mojave Desert,

Well, DOH! Who’da thought. 🙂

Reply to  eck
May 5, 2021 7:08 pm

I forgot the “Captain Obvious”.

May 5, 2021 3:38 pm

Looking at supplemental data for original post shows they used 2011 seed up until 2017 and their data up to 2016 is relatively incomplete. In 2017 they also used seed from 2015 and 2016, as well as seed from 2011. So am considering 2017 as their actual benchmark data as a function of quality seed.

The rare plant’s old 2011 seed in 2017 germinated at 0.99% in the shade (simulated solar panel), and only 0.75% in the control (unshaded). While the common plant’s old 2011 seed in 2017 germinated at 0.35% in the shade, and 0.87% in the unshaded control. So old seed of the rare plant germinated the best in the shade; and in the shade at a better rate than the common plant in either shade or if unshaded.

Using rare plant seed from 2015/2016 in 2017 germinated in the shade at 5.58%, and 5% in the unshaded control; while germinating at 3.38% in simulated rain runoff conditions. While the common plant seed from 2015/2016 n 2017 germinated in the shade at 2.14% , and 2.69% in the unshaded control; while germinating at 5.15% in simulated rain runoff conditions. So fresh seed of the rare plant again germinated best in the shade; an again in the shade at a better rate than the common plant in either shade, unshaded and even when the common plant did it’s own best getting runoff.

That indicates, to me, the rare seed actually conserves it’s plant hormone (phyto-hormone) balance better than the common seed as a rare seed ages (from 2011 to 2017); and that shade germination affords it better phyto-hormonal synchronicity. Whereas common seed requires osmotic (runoff moisture) conditions for a good rate of germination that do not favor the rare seed; again a function of phyto-hormones.

Published data for % survival in 2017 is unclear (on quick look) if it is a composite of 2011 and 2015/2016 seed. However I am under the impression the plants in the following set were all from 2015/2016 seed; bear in mind the number of plants underlying this data is not consistent at all (ex: common plant data for runoff survival is based on only 28 plants, as opposed to the over 60 common plants each for shade and unshaded controls’ survival).

The rare plant (47# plants) in 2017 from shade had a 72.3% survival rate, the unshaded rare control (30#plants) had a 91.7% survival rate, and that rare plant grown getting runoff water (54# plants) a 92.2% survival rate. While the common plant in 2017 from shade (64# plants) had a 72.7% survival rate, the unshaded control (69# plants) had a 79% survival rate, and that common plant grown getting runoff water (28# plants) a 82.2% survival rate.

The most notable feature is that both the rare and common plant had equal survival rates when shaded [ although prior data elucidates the rare plant germination is a bit over twice the common germination in shade]. We see that the rare unshaded (normal) control plants naturally survive at about a 13% higher rate than the common unshaded (normal) control plants [ again prior data elucidates rare plant germination almost twice the common germination when unshaded]. And the rare plant even outperforms under runoff conditions with almost 10% greater survival than the common plant in runoff conditions [ while the rare plant has much lower germination % under runoff conditions].

My take away synopsis is the rare plant is more hormonally suited for the growing conditions and if it does not get too much water runoff at the time of germination then it thrives on runoff. Under runoff conditions rare plant basically germinates about 2 % poorer than the common plant, but of those that germinate 10% more of the rare plant go onto survive than the common plant. Seems like a decent trade off and something likely to play out similarly when look at annual variability of natural rainfall patterns with seeds. Different rates of ideal moisture imbibing rate among plant varieties’ seeds is evolutionary adaptation.

Curious George
Reply to  gringojay
May 5, 2021 4:57 pm

“germinated at 0.99% in the shade”
Do you mean 99%? 

Reply to  Curious George
May 5, 2021 5:52 pm

0.99% (& 0.75% & 0.35% & 0.85%) was for 2011 seed grown in 2017 according to data set – just old seed. So no, not 99% for 2011 seed.

Tom in Florida
May 5, 2021 3:38 pm

“In the 1920s, the Colorado River Compact notoriously overallocated water still used today by several Western states”

How many times have they recycled that water since the 1920? Must be pretty void of nutrients by now.

Reply to  Tom in Florida
May 5, 2021 4:10 pm

Agreed phrasing could be better, but so could most of mine, only more so. Allocations are still used in close proportion to their original form, although it is technically negotiated by a board. Party politics and demographics still swing the biggest weight on the board. As a result, the U.S. is frequently in violation of treaty with Mexico for not supplying their allocation. Ditto for the Rio Grande.

Rud Istvan
Reply to  Tom in Florida
May 5, 2021 5:02 pm

TF, studied this issue and brushed on it in essay Much Ado About Nothing in ebook Blowing Smoke concerning the Green River kerogen shale. Cannot be produced under the most optimistic scenarios owing to lack of Colorado Compact water. The basic problem remains, the Compact was devised during a wetter than normal period, so assumed more water than is available over long term averages. That is coming to soon bite Arizona and Cali bigly.

May 5, 2021 5:05 pm

Spread the Green. Hide the green. Artificial selection or Choice.

Joel O'Bryan
May 5, 2021 7:37 pm

Where I am in central Texas right now, there is California-based Solar PV that is a OPM harvesting company trying to get a local county tax abatement on a proposed 2,500 acre solar farm they want to build over prime ranch land near the Texas Colorado River with a diverse wildlife to be decimated.

“California-based Intersect Power is seeking a tax abatement for a solar farm the company wants to build on 2,500 acres located within the Brookesmith school district.”

more here:

Intersect Power has been harvesting the Federal Investment Tax Credits only since 2016, incentivized by the Obama MalAdmin efforts to push unreliable, expensive electricty solutions on Americans.

It’s the Money that lures these bottom feeders in:

Without the property tax abatement, the solar farm is likely marginally profitable even with Federal government subsidies.

After February’s near total Texas ERCOT electric grid collapse due to too much unreliable electricity from these nonsensical OPM schemes, with solar being far worse than even wind mills, the Brown County Commisioners here are getting an earful from good people telling them they’ll be thrown out of office at the next election if any of these commissioners vote to approve this Central Texas solar farm Investment Tax Credit harvesting scam..

May 6, 2021 12:51 am

and yet the Trump administration’s opening up of desert federal lands to mining and mining or fracking for fossil fuels in US deserts seems to be absolutely OK with US Watts readers…

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  griff
May 6, 2021 9:08 pm

Once again, you demonstrate a lack of knowledge about things in the USA. Most of the desert lands are administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Before they passed into BLM stewardship, they had supported mining because there wasn’t much else the lands were good for, lacking enough water to even support small farms. Some of the lands were withdrawn from the application of the 1872 mining law regarding claiming and patenting. Actions taken by the Obama administration made certain areas only usable for sight-seeing type of recreation. Trump felt that the withdrawal was excessive and countermanded Obama’s decision. Actually, the whole approach of using the 1906 Antiquities Act to create recreational areas is of questionable legality. It is certainly a perversion of the intent to give the president the power to protect archaeologically significant sites.

Joseph Zorzin
May 6, 2021 4:54 am

And now the enviros in Massachusetts finally are starting to understand that going net free will result in vast destruction of fields and forests- which I’ve been telling them for over a decade- but they didn’t listen until a professor announced it!

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