walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Feed
Features
Reviews
Podcast
It's a Bird. It's aflame...
Solar Facility Fries Birds in Mid-Flight

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.

Features Icon
Features
show comments
  • Corlyss

    “a complete conversion to Luddism”
    The greens are beavering away to ensure that is exactly what we do. Amazing how unconcerned they are about the birds killed by their boutique passions. That dust up about Clyde over his grazing on BLM lands? BLM was clearing the place for a solar panel farm, owned by one of Obama’s or Reid’s pals no doubt, which kills their stupid desert turtle just as dead as the cattle do.

  • Andrew Allison

    Um, the only way to mitigate the risk to birds from solar and wind turbines is to turn them off. Could it be that the environmental costs of renewable energy are greater than those of fossil fuel?

    • Loader2000

      Not really, not if we are just talking about a small (overall) percentage of dead birds.

      • Craig Austin

        If these birds were found near a hydrocarbon facility the fines would be huge and the shutdown would be instant.

  • CaliforniaStark

    The Ivanpah facility is actually a hybrid solar-natural gas plant.

    In March 26 2014, the operator filed for a permit to increase the amount of natural gas used to heat the turbine fuel boilers from about 984 (MMSCF) million standard cubic feet, to about 1,575 (MMSCF) million standard cubic feet. The increase was the result of the needs for the boilers to run for 4.5 hours in the morning to heat the turbine fluid, instead of the one hour indicated in the facility’s original permit.

    Some commentators are estimating this will result in 92,200 tons of additional carbon emissions (the equivalent of the discharge from 16,500 automobilies). Concerns have been raised that Las Vegas air qualify will be impacted to provide “clean” energy to California.

    There have also been complaints filed by commercial airline pilots stating the glare from the solar mirrors creates a hazard to aviation.

    • B-Sabre

      “There have also been complaints filed by commercial airline pilots stating the glare from the solar mirrors creates a hazard to aviation.”
      So these things are a hazard to avians and aviators?

  • Craig Austin

    If you want a solar/wind project that works, buy a clothesline, and be patient.

  • Bruce

    Nobody has explained adequately how we are going to dispose of these solar panels in 25 years. Last I read, they are toxic. You can’t dump them in the landfill. Yucca Mountain?

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2014 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service