Solar Farm Ignites Birds Midflight

Discovery might halt future Mojave Desert solar installations

Aug 19, 2014
Outside Magazine
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Swallows fight over space on a solar panel. Little do they know...    Don McCullough/Flickr

Federal wildlife investigators in California are trying to halt a planned solar installation that would be twice as large as Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the world's biggest solar thermal plant, because birds ignite midflight when they fly through sun rays concentrated by mirror reflections.

When investigators visited the $2.2 billion Ivanpah plant last year before its February launch, they saw bird-based smoke plumes (known as "streamers" by employees) shoot through the air once every two minutes. BrightSource Energy—one of the companies involved in Ivanpah and spearheader of the proposed larger solar farm—estimates about 1,000 such deaths occur annually, but the Center for Biological Diversity says the carnage could climb to 28,000. Either way, investigators want the planned solar farm put on hold until a full year of bird deaths at Invanpah is tabulated.

What's the problem with Ivanpah? Streamers don't happen over every solar plant, but most solar plants use photovoltaic panels—Ivanpah doesn't. The question here is which is more at fault: the Mojave Desert location or the plant's unique construction.

The desert gets some of the best solar radiation in the country, but Ivanpah is also the biggest solar farm to employ power towers—a system wherein 300,000 garage-door-sized mirrors reflect light on boiler towers that produce steam to rotate turbines. Like a lethal disco ball, the solar farm singes birds as it generates electricity for 140,000 homes. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials reported this month that power-tower solar farms have "the highest lethality potential" of any California solar project. The new BrightSource farm would have a 75-story power tower and stand in the flight path of more than 100 endangered species along the California-Arizona border. Investigators say it would be four times as lethal as Ivanpah.

Unfortunately, animals and insects are attracted to light—and concentrated light just concentrates the problem. The investigators told the Associated Press that 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." Ivanpah officials think they can solve the streamer problem despite biologists saying there's no known way to curb the deaths.

Although Invapah researchers are investigating ways to scare birds away with light and sound, BrightSource executives are trying to compensate for the problem in ways that won't help birds near the site—such as donating $1.8 million to programs that spay and neuter domestic cats, which kill more than 1.4 billion birds annually.

This isn't the first time Ivanpah has been in the news for stressing animal populations—it got bad press in 2012 for injuring protected tortoises.