The Ivanpah solar facility supplies 140,000 homes with renewable, zero-emission electricity–and is the world’s largest solar-thermal power station. Located in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, Ivanpah may be the best example yet of green energy produced on a large scale, but there’s a problem. The plant is a “mega-trap” for birds: The focused light attracts the avians, and then fries them in midair. James Greiff explains the grisly phenomenon for Bloomberg View:
After several studies, the conclusion for why birds are drawn to the searing beams of the solar field goes like this: Insects are attracted to the bright light of the reflecting mirrors, much as moths are lured to a porch light. Small birds — insect eaters such as finches, swallows and warblers — go after the bugs. In turn, predators such as hawks and falcons pursue the smaller birds.
But once the birds enter the focal field of the mirrors, called the “solar flux,” injury or death can occur in a few seconds. The reflected light from the mirrors is 800 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Either the birds are incinerated in flight; their feathers are singed, causing them to fall to their deaths; or they are too injured to fly and are killed on the ground by predators, according to a report by the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. (Hats off to the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, which got the report through a Freedom of Information Act request.)
Once ignited, the birds plummet to the ground like tiny meteors; workers at the Ivanpah facility have taken to referring to such events as “streamers.” Observers witnessed “an average of one streamer event every two minutes.” The flare-ups also occur when dust or insects are ignited, but birds cause an alarming number of them. Last October, researchers from the US Fish and Wildlife Service collected 141 bird carcasses from Ivanpah over the course of just three days.
Green energy sources seem to have it in for our flying friends. Wind turbines chop them to pieces, while photovoltaic panels pose the same hazard as windows or buildings: Birds run straight into them. But every energy source, no matter how green or brown, entails environmental risks. To eliminate these dangers, we’d need to wean ourselves off of electricity entirely. That’s not happening, and in lieu of a complete conversion to Luddism, we must weigh (and mitigate) the risks instead of expecting to avoid them entirely.