It’s Not Just Wind Turbines and Oil Spills — Solar Power Kills Birds, Too

When it comes to energy harvesting, our avian friends just can’t catch a break.

Fly away, fly away!
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
May 1, 2014, 8:01 a.m.

Some birds just can’t res­ist fly­ing too close to the sun — and burn­ing to death in the pro­cess.

In Cali­for­nia’s Mo­jave Desert, a sol­ar-en­ergy plant is caus­ing birds to burst in­to flames and fall out of the sky, like tiny fight­er jets. A re­port from the Na­tion­al Fish and Wild­life Forensics Labor­at­ory on the Ivan­pah Sol­ar Elec­tric Gen­er­at­ing Sys­tem found that the fa­cil­ity’s sol­ar pan­el ar­ray has a deadly side ef­fect for loc­al wild­life.

Bloomberg de­scribes how the fa­cil­ity’s sol­ar-en­ergy har­vest­ing pro­cess works:

An ar­ray of 300,000 mir­rors cov­er­ing 3,500 acres fo­cus the sun’s rays on three 460-foot towers. The towers con­tain a li­quid that, when heated, powers steam tur­bines. Those tur­bines in turn pro­duce enough elec­tri­city for about 140,000 homes, without green­house gases or oth­er emis­sions.

What no one seems to have coun­ted on was how the fa­cil­ity, de­veloped by Bright­Source En­ergy Inc., would af­fect the en­vir­on­ment. We now know the an­swer: It at­tracts birds and kills them.

How it hap­pens: First, in­sects are drawn to the re­flect­ive light of the sol­ar mir­rors. That draws small, in­sect-eat­ing birds, which in turn draw lar­ger pred­at­ory birds. The rays of the mir­rors’ re­flec­ted light pro­duces tem­per­at­ures from 800 de­grees to 1,000 de­grees Fahren­heit. Any an­im­al caught in the in­tense glare of the mir­ror’s rays may catch fire and plum­met to­ward the ground, or spon­tan­eously com­bust al­to­geth­er.

The re­port has found that at least 141 birds have died at the Ivan­pah fa­cil­ity. This sort of stat­ist­ic is bad news for sus­tain­able-en­ergy ad­voc­ates, who of­ten weath­er at­tacks from con­ser­vat­ives that wind tur­bines kill birds, too. A sur­vey of sci­entif­ic lit­er­at­ure put tur­bine-re­lated bird deaths at some­where between 140,000 and 328,000 each year.

But it’s worth keep­ing these num­bers in per­spect­ive. In the six months after the BP oil spill in 2010 — when 4.9 mil­lion bar­rels of crude oil leaked in­to the Gulf of Mex­ico — more than 7,000 birds were col­lec­ted in the spill area, and more than 3,000 were coated in oil, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Wild­life Fed­er­a­tion. Up to 23,000 birds could have been killed by the spill, ac­cord­ing to an es­tim­ate in Audu­bon Magazine. It’s also es­tim­ated that 225,000 birds died from the Ex­xon Valdez spill in 1989.

No mat­ter what form it takes — wind, sol­ar, or oil — en­ergy har­vest­ing rarely be­ne­fits our avi­an friends. Even deep un­der­ground, birds can be­come en­ergy cas­u­al­ties — just look at the ca­nary in the coal mine.

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