New Solar Power Plants are Incinerating Birds

August 18, 2014

Thousands of birds are flying into a new solar "mega-trap" in the middle of California's Mojave Desert, killing the avian lot at a rate of up to one bird every two minutes, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

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.

At Ivanpah, the sun's ray's are redirected from a sea of more than 300,000 mirrors on the desert surface below to hit water filled boilers atop three 459-foot "power towers."  Temperatures near the towers can climb to 800 degrees, which causes the water to produce steam that turns turbines which generate energy.

All told, the facility at Ivanpah generates enough electricity to power 140,000 homes and eliminates carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 72,000 vehicles a year, according to a press release from Bright Source Energy, one of the trio of investors behind the solar plant.

That sort of renewable energy source might seem like a triumph for the environment, but the same super-heated skyscrapers that generate renewable electricity are also taking a toll on wildlife in the area.

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.

A report by the USFWS states that most of the birds are dying from various levels of exposure to "solar flux" which causes "singeing of feathers."

"Severe singeing of flight feathers caused catastrophic loss of flying ability, leading to death by impact with the ground or other objects," the report states. "Less severe singeing led to impairment of flight capability, reducing ability to forage and evade predators, leading to starvation or predation."

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 as a "mega-trap" for wildlife.

Unfortunately, the USFWS 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.

The proposed facility would have a power tower nearly twice the size of the ones found at Ivanpah and is located in an area with more than 100 species of birds, including protected species like golden eagles and peregrine falcons. Officials estimate that if the plant were built it would be nearly four times deadly to avian species than the solar plant at Ivanpah.

A spokesperson for NRG Solar, another one of the companies behind Ivanpah told the Associated Press that "we take this issue very seriously." So far, the only remedy appears to be cash. BrightSource has anted up $1.8 million to compensate for bird deaths and the trio of companies behind the project is looking into potential solutions to stop wildlife from colliding with the solar plant.

MORE: The Ivanpah Solar plant

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