As part of America’s plan to use more renewable energy 33 states have set Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) which require that a certain percentage of the state’s power be from renewable sources. California has led the way, having already met its first goal of 20 percent by 2010, and it is now on target for meeting the goal of 33 percent by 2020. But at what cost?
In February, the world’s largest solar thermal power plant began full operation in California’s Mojave Desert. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System generates enough power for 140,000 homes and represents 30 percent of the solar power generation currently operational in the U.S. The technology used to harness the sun’s rays includes more than 300,000 mirrors focused on water-filled boilers that sit atop three 459 foot towers. The steam produced powers the turbines that in turn produce the energy. Temperatures through this solar flux field can reach 800 degrees. Sadly, this massive source of environmentally friendly clean energy is also proving deadly to the local wildlife.
The intense light at the top of the towers attracts insects and butterflies, and the sight of the insects attracts hungry birds. When these insects and birds fly into the solar flux, they often end up burning alive in the nearly 800 degree Fahrenheit temperatures the field generates. When federal Fish and Wildlife scientists went to observe the site in September, they witnessed a bird going up in flames nearly every two minutes.
A report issued by the National Fish and Wildlife Laboratory in April stated that Ivanpah may act as a “mega-trap” by attracting insects, which in-turn attracts insect-eating birds who become incapacitated – or killed – by a solar flux injury. This will then attract predators who feed on the incapacitated birds, leading to an “entire food chain vulnerable to injury or death.” The report noted that 141 carcasses had been found on the site at the time of inspection.
While this is a real and serious problem, it should be understood that the number of birds killed is still relatively low. To put it into perspective, it is believed that upwards of 10 percent of the United States bird population meets an untimely death by crashing into the windows of skyscrapers and even single family homes. Confusion created by artificial lights and reflections may kill anywhere from 365 million to more than 900 million birds annually. By comparison, death by solar power plant is still a remote danger.
Nevertheless, the Ivanpah plant operators are cooperating with federal officials as they embark on a two-year study to identify the magnitude of the problem. However, first they need to know exactly how many species are affected. The report couldn’t clearly identify all of the 141 remains in the study and investigators also could not clearly identify how much of an impact the solar plant has on wildlife as many of the bodies were decomposed or eaten by scavengers before researchers could find them–after all, the property is 3700 acres, representing a nearly impossible task for mere humans. Now though, scientists have come up with a cunning plan to help them figure the extent of the danger.
Scientists are employing specially trained dogs to seek out and retrieve the bodies of fallen birds before scavengers descend on them. So far the dogs have been able to retrieve 68 percent of small birds, and 71 percent of large ones, a result much better than when humans were tasked with the job. The biologists have also recommended that plant operators install cameras to help record bird activity in the area. Scientists believe if they can get an accurate count on the number and types of birds affected, steps can be taken to help reduce or eliminate bird deaths.
Hopefully, then, as we strive to combat climate change, we will remember to consider the impact these efforts are having on our wildlife and reduce the danger whenever we can.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.