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Can Birds Be Protected From Huge Solar Plants?

You might never have seen an Yuma clapper rail. Fewer than 1,000 are thought to still be sloshing about in cattail-thick marshes from Mexico up to Utah and across to California. But if you were lucky enough to spot one, you might chuckle at its oversized toes.

When officials with the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory saw one of these endangered birds last year, it was no laughing matter. It was dead. It was one of 233 birds recovered from the sites of three Californian desert solar power plants as part of a federal investigation. The laboratory’s wildlife equivalents of CSI stars concluded that many of the birds had been fatally singed, broken, or otherwise fatally crippled by the facilities.

Yuma clapper rail. Credit: Fish & Wildlife Services

Last week, that long-dead clapper rail stoked a legal action that challenges at least a half dozen additional solar plants planned in California and Arizona.

Conservationists say they’re also worried about yellow-billed cuckoos, which might be added to the federal government’s list of threatened species, and endangered southwestern willow flycatchers, though none of those birds have been found dead at any of the solar sites.

The effects of wind turbines on birds, which research suggests kill far fewer birds per megawatt hour than do fossil fuel plants, have long been a source of consternation for many environmentalists. Their bird-killing effects have been serious enough to kill and hamper some planned projects. Now, as concentrated solar farms start to sweep the globe, solar energy developers are facing similar outcries and opposition for the harm that their clean energy facilities can cause to wildlife.

The construction of solar panel farms and concentrated solar power are both booming businesses. In California, industrial-scale facilities like these are helping utilities meet a state mandate that 20 percent of electricity sold by 2017 is renewable. But if the problem of wildlife impacts festers, the growth of concentrated solar, which by one recent estimate could grow to a $9 billion worldwide industry in 2020, up from $1 billion in 2013, could be crimped by lawsuits and opposition from conservationists.

Much of the problem appears to lie in the “lake effect,” in which birds and their insect prey can mistake a reflective solar facility for a water body, or spot water ponds at the site, then hone in on it. Because of the power of the lake effect, the federal investigators described such solar farms as “mega-traps” in their report.

“I strongly believe there’s a way to show the birds that the PV panels are solid surfaces, not water,” said Ileene Anderson, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is preparing to sue over Yuma clapper rail mortality at solar power plants.

The Associated Press reported last week on “streamers” at BrightSource Energy’s concentrated solar plant -- a futuristic-looking facility that gamers pass as they drive through the desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. That’s the name given to birds as their feathers ignite, mid-air, after flying through a concentrated beam of sunlight. Such hapless birds can be burned to death, killed by brute force when they crash to the ground, or eaten a predator swoops in to claim their maimed body. These are just some of the ways that large solar plants can kill birds. It’s not known how many birds are being felled by the groundswell of such facilities, but the numbers are high enough to concern bird and conservation groups -- regardless of the environmental benefits of solar power.

“We can safeguard our irreplaceable wildlife, like the Yuma clapper rail, through thoughtful implementation of renewable energy projects,” Anderson said.

Aerial view of solar panels in Arizona.
Credit: Daniel Lobo/flickr

Within days of the AP report, Anderson’s group, which had obtained the federal report through a public records request, dispatched a notice of intent to sue. In the letter, an attorney for the group threatened to take the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to court in 60 days unless the agencies agreed to more thoroughly review the potential bird impacts of other large solar power plants proposed within the Yuma clapper rail’s range. The notice alleges violations of the Endangered Species Act.

The attorney cites findings from the federal investigation report, which showed that the Yuma clapper rail had been killed at First Solar’s 4,400-acre Desert Sun Solar Farm in California’s Riverside County. The facility uses a 550-megawatt photovoltaic array that produces clean electricity for Californian utility customers. (The group also cited a media report of another Yuma clapper rail death at a similar facility.) Birds can be killed when they smash into the facility’s solar panels, the investigation concluded.

The other solar farms analyzed by the investigators were of the newfangled trough and solar power tower varieties. They included the Genesis Solar Energy Project, also in Riverside County, which uses a trough system in which parabolic mirrors focus sunrays into a tube where water boils into steam that spins a turbine to produce electricity. The mirrors pose similar threats to birds as solar panels. The third facility studied was the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in Bernardino County, Calif., where birds can be burned as they pass through concentrated sunrays that are reflected off thousands of mirrors toward a solar power tower, where water is boiled to produce electricity-generating steam.

The problem of bird deaths at solar power farms is a complex one. Some solar developers have been powering down bright lights that had attracted insects at night, or switching to LEDs, and using nets to keep birds at bay. But that apparently is not enough. “The diversity of birds dying at these solar facilities, and the differences among sites, suggest that there is no simple ‘fix’ to reduce avian mortality,” the federal report states.

The report recommends improving bird- and bat-death monitoring through the use of sniffer dogs, video cameras, and daily surveys. It also lists recommendations for directly reducing avian mortality. Those recommendations include clearing vegetation around solar towers to make the area less attractive to birds, retrofitting panels and mirrors with designs that help birds realize the solar arrays are not water, suspending operations at key migration times, and preventing birds and bats from roosting and perching at the facilities. The recommendations are being considered by regulators.

The Center for Biological Diversity supports those proposed measures. It also suggests restoring bird habitat elsewhere to draw birds away from the solar facilities, which could help the rails and other species recover. And it wants the government to undertake new scientific research -- research that could offer clues for better protecting birds from solar power farms.

“We’d like the FWS to start looking at the potential problem that the Yuma clapper rail may be being attracted onto the sites,” Anderson said. “These large-scale solar projects in the desert are giant experiments, and we should be learning something from them in order to avoid and minimize impacts. We’re so low on the learning curve that there’s a lot of unanswered questions.”

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By Ozzy (Joyce/WA/98363)
on August 26th, 2014

Why must everything be so big that it creates these impacts? We should scale down solar to the surfaces where it needs to be used. It is only when alternative energy is scaled up so that a centralized entity can dole it out for a profit that we have these problems. Scale down and decentralize energy resources so everyone can use the wind and sun for free (once they purchase their individual technology to harness it from their home, vehicle or somewhere on their body).

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By Stone Abdullah (Irvine/CA/92617)
on August 27th, 2014

Apparently it is not impossible to prevent avian mortalities in large scale solar-voltaic facilities, and we certainly need to improve our alternative-energy production. At this point it just takes some will-power from the “higher-ups” to implement these measures. My ONLY concern is the clearing of trees as a consistent means of avian roosting deterrence; if we continue large scale solar facilities, how many trees must we clear before we marginally impact the energy budget/carbon sequestration of those regions?

Since solar facilities are built in the desert, and climate change threatens desertification, how sustainable is it to plant trees in the desert to keep birds away? This is a very interesting situation that takes careful planning and balance, hopefully we find a solution soon.

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By Thomas Gray (Norwich)
on August 27th, 2014

Great article, John. I look forward to your equally detailed analysis of bird losses due to habitat destruction, drownings, incinerations, etc., associated with fossil fuel extraction, combustion, and pollution. It’s not very glamorous or sexy, like revealing that solar and wind are not perfect, but the technologies are much more harmful to birds. You could start with the New York State Energy Research & Development Administration (NYSERDA) report of some years ago that compared the lifecycle impacts of various energy technologies (not including solar) on wildlife and found wind’s impacts to be lowest. Don’t forget to include the effects of climate change from fossil fuels—my impression is that those are likely to be quite extensive.

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By Frank Stivers (Ripley , Ohio 45167)
on August 28th, 2014

You might ask the zoos to help with answers ... The Cincinnatizoo years ago had a huge bird cage made from a fence type of structure ... I feed birds ... Sunflower seeds ...have for the last fifteen years , most every morning the birds know where the seed will be ... In the birdfeeders ...  Do note that birds , squirrels , raccoons , mice , and a few other critters eat seeds ...

So , if you asked me about birds ... Buy some feeders and feed them AWAY from the things that kill them ...

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By Frank Stivers (Ripley , Ohio 45167)
on August 28th, 2014

If some of the people whom work at the power plants would start feeling the birds ... ( whatever the birds eat ... ) ... The birds would probably stay around those feeders ... I hope you like building bird houses ... LOL !!!! smile

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By Thomas Gray (Norwich, VT 05055)
on August 29th, 2014

Here’s some climate change may be doing to one species:’s/1 . For another more direct impact of fossil fuels, see (5,000 to 10,000 migrating birds killed in a single night, incinerated in a gas flare).

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By turboblocke (France)
on August 31st, 2014

If you’re serious about bird deaths then you should sort out the big killers first: cats, cars and constructions. They together kill billions per year.

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