Solar Power Plants Are Literally Roasting Birds In-Flight

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July 8 2014 12:54 PM

Solar Power Plants Are Literally Roasting Birds In-Flight

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Ivanpah will be the largest solar thermal power tower system in the world. But you wouldn't want to fly there.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For proponents of renewable energy, it seems like every time a technology is primed to save the world, it gets dogged by some ironic bit of environmental unpleasantness. Wind turbines can be dangerous to birds and bats. Biofuels require so much land, fertilizer, and water that they may use more energy to produce than they provide. Hydropower dams screw up a whole lot of river habitat and stop fish from spawning.

The latest on this list of “dark green” technologies is thermal solar power, which is coming into vogue in the southern California desert. (Full disclosure: I work at an environmental organization that has opposed the locations chosen for some of those facilities.) A new study from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory obtained by KCET gives some depressing and gruesome details of bird deaths occurring at industrial solar facilities.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees and energy company staff found 233 birds of 71 different species at three California solar facilities—Ivanpah, Genesis, and Desert Sunlight—during random surveys over two years. That’s not a huge number of birds (though the limited scope of the collections means it’s just a fraction of the actual deaths), but what’s shocking is the way some of these birds are dying: They are literally being burned alive, in midair.

Each of these facilities employs a different strategy for deriving energy from the sun. Ivanpah is a “solar power tower” plant, which scatters thousands of mirrors over an area larger than Central Park and aims them all at a single, water-filled tower. The reflected, concentrated heat reaches 800 degrees Fahrenheit, boiling the water in the tower and generating electricity. Genesis employs a trough system, generating steam by reflecting sunlight from parabolic mirrors onto water-filled tubes. Desert Sunlight is a photovoltaic system, converting sunlight directly into energy using an array of 8.8 million solar modules spread over 6 square miles.

Industrial-scale facilities like these are exactly the kind of places that can help wean this country off fossil fuels. Once they’re at full capacity, these solar plants together will generate about the same amount of power as a small coal-fired plant, but with none of the nasty emissions. They’re located on public lands, paying rent to the federal government and providing jobs in areas with few other well-paying opportunities.

Yet despite its blazing unwelcomeness, the California desert is anything but empty. The desert is home to thousands of species of plants and animals. Many of them are rare or endangered, including the desert tortoise and the desert bighorn sheep, or are found nowhere else. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also a major route for migratory birds working their way north. Indeed, more species have been found on the Salton Sea—a stinking oasis in the middle of the desert—than at any other single spot in California. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, all these birds now have solar mega-traps in their path.

Researchers found that the bright lights created by the facilities—brighter even than surrounding daylight—attracted insects. At Ivanpah, researchers found “hundreds upon hundreds” of dead butterflies, including already-stressed monarchs, some with singed wings. Birds came to feed on the insects, and bigger birds came to feed on the insect-eaters. When birds flew into the hottest areas, observers saw them emit streams of smoke from their feathers. On-the-ground staff found birds with their flight feathers burned away, some still alive but unable to fly. During their visit to Ivanpah, the report states, USFWS staff saw birds burn in midair “every two minutes.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, birds are dying in a completely different—but equally ugly—manner at other facilities. Researchers found an unusually high number of water birds dead at the Desert Sunlight facility. These birds, including grebes, herons, ducks, and even pelicans, died not from the heat but from blunt force trauma. The cause was clear, as stated in the report: “A desert environment punctuated by a large expanse of reflective, blue panels may be reminiscent of a large body of water.” These birds—tired from flying over the hot desert—home in on what looks like a calm lake but instead crash into hard panels. They either die instantly or, as researchers found, lie helpless for land-based predators. Grebes need to take flight from water, so being marooned on land makes them sitting ducks for predators, should they survive the impact of landing on the panels or desert floor.

The report’s authors offered some possible improvements, including adding striping to panels and spacing them farther apart to make them look less like lakes and turning off the solar towers during peak migration. But they don’t seem to put much faith in these fixes. Wildlife groups are challenging the environmental reviews of these projects, armed with new information about the impacts to birds, but have yet to achieve significant changes. With several more solar plants under construction, it seems that these facilities will keep their place alongside wind farms, buildings, outdoor housecats, habitat loss, and good old fashioned climate change as deadly human-caused obstacles in the path of a successful bird migration.

Put some seed in your feeders, would you? These guys need a break.

Nicholas Lund lives and birds in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Birdist. Follow him on Twitter.

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