So not only is California currently fighting its way through a record drought that covers 99.8% of the state but the AP is reporting that state Wildlife Investigators say a futuristic solar plant, developed by Brightsource Energy, NRG Solar, and Google in the Mojave Desert is igniting birds in mid-air at a rate of 1 every two minutes (131,487 a year at that rate). Observers have even taken to calling these birds who catch fire and fall to the ground with smoke trailing behind them, “streamers.” Officials are urging California to do a serious study of the technology’s environmental impact.
But first, how does this solar plant even work? How is sunlight being so concentrated that it’s creating a magnifying glass meets ant effect?
More than 300,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, reflect solar rays onto three boiler towers each looming up to 40 stories high. The water inside is heated to produce steam, which turns turbines that generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes.
That’ll do it.
So what we have here isn’t traditional solar panels passively collecting energy straight from the sun, it’s a rethinking of how we traditionally produce electricity via coal, nuclear, and gas where heat is produced in order to boil water which then turns a turbine which then produces electrical current. It also produces an incredible amount of light.
Sun rays sent up by the field of mirrors are bright enough to dazzle pilots flying in and out of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Federal wildlife officials said Ivanpah might act as a “mega-trap” for wildlife, with the bright light of the plant attracting insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds that fly to their death in the intensely focused light rays.
More bothersome is that, like many traditional power producers, the creators of this alternate solar energy seem to be more interested in making excuses for what’s happening and hand waving away the problem than actually contemplating a redesign. Instead of halting the current plant in Ivanpah, California, they want to go ahead with building a new one between the Colorado River and the Salton Sea which is described thusly:
an area, experts say, is richer in avian life than the Ivanpah plant, with protected golden eagles and peregrine falcons and more than 100 other species of birds recorded there.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials warned California this month that the power-tower style of solar technology holds “the highest lethality potential” of the many solar projects burgeoning in the deserts of California.
The commission’s staff estimates the proposed new tower would be almost four times as dangerous to birds as the Ivanpah plant.
But that’s okay because Brightsource, the main company behind the technology, is offering compensation for those hundreds of thousands of (millions if the new plant is built) bird deaths in a unique form.
BrightSource also is offering $1.8 million in compensation for anticipated bird deaths at Palen, Desmond said.
The company is proposing the money for programs such as those to spay and neuter domestic cats, which a government study found kill over 1.4 billion birds a year.
First rule of alternative energy should probably be don’t create a death ray. Thought that went without saying.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article included bad math (mine) for a 1 bird every two minutes estimation. A commenter pointed it out and I’ve made the correction.