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20-1. Assessing the environmental impacts associated with solar energy development in the southwestern United States


Closing Date: January 6, 2022

This Research Opportunity will be filled depending on the availability of funds. All application materials must be submitted through USAJobs by 11:59 pm, US Eastern Standard Time, on the closing date.



The United States is developing renewable energy facilities, especially for solar, at an unprecedented rate, including on large areas of public land in the Desert Southwest. This quantum leap is driven by escalating costs and demand for traditional energy sources, and by concerns over climate change. Paradoxically, the implementation of utility-scale solar energy development as an “environmentally friendly” or “green” alternative to conventional energy sources based on fossil fuels may actually increase environmental degradation on both local and regional scales. Potential negative effects to ecosystems from solar facilities include: 1) wildlife mortality and modification of wildlife habitat, 2) changes to vegetation productivity and composition, including the decline of at-risk species and spread of invasives, 3) shifts in surface energy balance, climate, and hydrology, 4) increased wildfire and soil erosion risks, and other effects (Lovich and Ennen 2011).

The technological ability to develop massive solar facilities is far ahead of empirical scientific knowledge of how to effectively mitigate negative environmental effects on wildlife and their habitat. In a review of the peer-reviewed scientific literature of the effects of solar energy on wildlife up to 2010, only a single paper was found showing that birds flying through solar flux associated with concentrating solar facilities crashed due to feathers melting (Lovich and Ennen 2011). Since then our knowledge of the negative effects of solar energy development has increased (Agha et al. 2020) but substantial uncertainty about ecological effects, especially across trophic levels, remains (Moore-O’Leary et al. 2017).

These effects are magnified in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, where solar energy is being rapidly developed in the US, due to their sensitivity and the fact that they are already stressed by climate and land-use changes (Lovich and Bainbridge 1999). When completed, the Gemini Solar Project northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada in the Mojave Desert will be the largest solar facility in the United States and one of the largest in the world with 690 megawatts of power generation and battery storage. It is permitted to occupy some portion of over 28 km2 of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The USGS has been funded by the BLM to evaluate environmental impacts associated with construction and operation of this facility, and there is a high likelihood of funding to support research on additional facilities slated for development in the area. Research for the Gemini site will focus on the responses of dominant plant communities on site, at-risk endangered milkvetch and beardtongue species, and accompanying physical properties of the developed environment. The site is also occupied by federally-protected Agassiz’s desert tortoises that will be relocated and then reintroduced in large numbers following construction.

Monitoring will include tracking how vegetation responds to solar infrastructure and vegetation management treatments (mowing, crushing, and herbicide application) to prepare and maintain the site. The monitoring effort will incorporate measurements of physical conditions at the site, including soil integrity, rates of soil erosion, temperature and soil moisture variation, the abundance of invasive non-native species, native plant composition and productivity, photosynthetic rates, and rainfall distribution across treatments and time. Other researchers, with whom we are collaborating, are removing desert tortoises before construction, and reintroducing them in large numbers to the site after construction is complete, which has not been adequately tested to date. Therefore, the vegetation monitoring will inform habitat suitability and forage quality available to tortoises upon reintroduction. Construction of the facility will begin in winter 2021-2022 with data collection funded for four years.

Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the Research Advisor(s) early in the application process to discuss project ideas.


Agha, M., J.E. Lovich, J.R. Ennen, and B.D. Todd. 2020. Wind, sun, and wildlife: do wind and solar energy development “short-circuit” conservation in the western United States? Environmental Research Letters.

Lovich, J. E. and D. Bainbridge. 1999. Anthropogenic degradation of the southern California desert ecosystem and prospects for natural recovery and restoration. Environmental Management 24:309-326.

Lovich, J.E., and J.R. Ennen. 2011. Wildlife conservation and solar energy development in the Desert Southwest, United States. BioScience 61:982-992.

Moore-O’Leary, K.A., R.R. Hernandez, D.S. Johnston, S.R. Abella, K.E. Tanner, A.C. Swanson, J. Kreitler, and J.E. Lovich. 2017. Sustainability of utility-scale solar energy – critical ecological concepts. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 15(7):385–394.

Proposed Duty Station: Flagstaff, Arizona

Areas of PhD: Biology, botany, ecology, environmental science, wildlife biology or related fields (candidates holding a Ph.D. in other disciplines, but with extensive knowledge and skills relevant to the Research Opportunity may be considered).

Qualifications: Applicants must meet the qualifications for one of the following:  Research Biologist, Research Wildlife Biologist, Research Botanist, Research Ecologist.

(This type of research is performed by those who have backgrounds for the occupations stated above.  However, other titles may be applicable depending on the applicant's background, education, and research proposal. The final classification of the position will be made by the Human Resources specialist.)

Human Resources Office Contact:  Audrey Tsujita, 916-278-9395,