Climate change, conservation planning, and renewable energy development in the Mojave Desert
The increase in utility-scale renewable energy development in the desert southwest has raised concerns about potential impacts to sensitive biological resources. To address this issue, the goal of this multiyear project was to develop analytical approaches, tools and geospatial data to support conservation planning for renewable energy development in the California deserts. Our research focused on geographical analysis to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the cumulative biological effects of utility-scale solar energy development. Four primary project tasks created new data and methods to model cumulative impacts for conservation planning applications. A hierarchical logic model was created to map the relative degree of compatibility of new solar energy projects with current biological conservation values. Species distribution models were produced for 65 animal and plant species of potential conservation significance to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) process. These models were applied to map both historical and projected future habitat suitability using 270m resolution climate grids. A spatial decision support tool was created to aid in locating potential sites for offsetting project impacts based on user-supplied conservation criteria. Finally, to assess cumulative effects an analytical framework was designed to assess the potential impacts of multiple solar energy projects given background climate and land use change.
Model implementation indicated that the extent of compatible areas is much greater than the estimated land area required to achieve 2040 greenhouse gas reduction goals. Worked examples applying these frameworks in the Western Mojave Desert ecoregion show the potential of these publicly-available tools to assist regional planning efforts. Results also highlight the need to explicitly consider projected land use change and climate change when prioritizing areas for conservation and mitigation offsets.