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In a Puff of Solar Smoke

One could use a story like this to slag solar energy, but that’s not the point:

According to the Associated Press, up to 28,000 birds per year might be meeting an early death after burning up in the focused beams of sunlight, with birds dying at a rate of one bird every two minutes. The burned-up birds are being dubbed "streamers," after the poof of smoke produced by the igniting birds.

Assuming plant workers came up with “streamers,” well, that’s pretty tasteless. It gets (potentially) worse.

A quasi-food chain is being established around the solar plant, with predators eating birds and bats that burn up in the plant's solar rays chasing after insects which are attracted to the bright light from the sun's reflected rays. That prompted wildlife officials to refer to Ivanpah [the solar farm’s name] as a "mega-trap" for wildlife.

It turns out this is the consequence of what sounds like an interesting design. (You can view a very fancy Google Streets-style tour of Ivanpah here. Note that the towers are not numerous amongst the many solar panels, but I assume it is the “power towers” that get hot enough to evaporate birds.)

The state-of-the-art Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), which opened in February, is the world's largest solar plant to utilize "power towers,"  skyscraping structures that receive beams of focused solar rays to generate electricity.

Energy plants that pull water from rivers can have an impact on fish, though not at a level that impacts the overall piscine population of the river – the percentage of fish affected is vanishingly small compared to the number of fish in a given environment.

That might apply here, too, though no one seems to have researched the issue in any depth.

Unfortunately, the USFWS [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] doesn't yet know the full extent of the solar facility's impact on bird populations, and is calling for a full year study of the death toll at the site before the plant's operators are allowed to construct an even bigger "power tower" solar plant between Joshua Tree National Park and the California-Arizona border, the Associated Press reports.

A small percentage of birds caught in solar conflagration may or may not be considered too many. But what would be completely unacceptable is if the Joshua Tree solar array causes problems for the raptors known to be there (golden eagles and peregrine falcons) – that would likely lead to considerable protest from their human admirers. That’s what USFWS won’t allow.

In sum: no energy source known to man is completely benign – there’s a reason “harnessed” and “energy” often go together – but most, including nuclear energy, have been harnessed and their potential impact on wildlife mitigated significantly. Some water bodies around nuclear energy plants have increased their fish cohort and become angler destinations. Something similar can happen with these “power towers,” too. Fewer puffs of smoke, retiring the term streamers. It’s a difficult problem, perhaps, but (let’s hope) solvable. Let’s see what happens.


Anonymous said…
"Energy plants that pull water from rivers can have an impact on fish, though not at a level that impacts the overall piscine population of the river – the percentage of fish affected is vanishingly small compared to the number of fish in a given environment."

Can one apply that same standard to the birds killed by solar plants? What's the percentage for that?

If it's 28,000 birds annually, total, nationwide, the percentage must be "vanishingly small." How many birds are there in the US?
Anonymous said…
How many birds have been killed by the many radiation leaks over the the course of the nuclear industry's history?

How many were killed world wide in the release of I-131 after Fukushima alone?

FAR more birds are killed flying into windows or by domestic cats, but I see no objections to windows or cats

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