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Solar Energy v. Wildlife in the California Desert

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, a $2.2 billion solar farm in the California desert, uses concentrating solar power to create enough energy to power 140,000 homes annually. The price of the sunlight-concentrating power of its more than 300,000 garage-door sized mirrors, however, is being paid by the avian population.

The gigantic solar project, jointly owned by NRG Energy, Google, Inc., and Brightsource Energy, was the subject of a National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory report recently. It seems that this particular type of solar farm, with its “solar flux” technology, is frying birds to death as they soar overhead, or, at minimum, singeing their feathers so as to render them useless.

The report compared bird deaths at three California solar farms: Desert Sunlight, which is a photovoltaic facility; Genesis, which uses parabolic mirrors, and Ivanpah, with its solar tower. The tower contains boilers that receive the concentrated sunlight, which heats the water to create steam to move turbines.

Researchers found a disturbing trend at Ivanpah, which accounted for 141 of the three locations’ 233 bird deaths. Not only were birds subject to the usual impact trauma experienced at all types of solar plants, but they also suffered from solar flux injury at Ivanpah. This type of damage to birds’ bodies was specific to the site, where power tower temperatures can reach 800 degrees F.

Not only that, but the report found that the plant could be considered a “mega-trap”, by attracting insects that attract birds — who are then injured on site, attracting other predators. This scenario puts a whole food chain at risk, researchers note.

But wait, you say. How many birds are killed by wind power each year? That’s a good question, and the latest numbers estimate that over 570,000 birds die each year in the U.S. due to wind turbines, in addition to over 10,000 bats.

But, fossil-based power production kills, too. In a paper by Benjamin K. Sovacool of the Vermont Law School, the per-gigawatt avian kill rate is as follows for various means of electricity generation:

wind: 0.27

nuclear: 0.6

fossil-fuels: 9.4

Using these statistics, solar is much less lethal to birds than any other types of energy production. Instead of focusing on just one, maybe there should be a concentrated effort to reduce all types of fatalities in all energy sectors — though, I would advocate starting with the oil industry!