The workers call them “streamers.” Hapless birds that fly over a massive California solar array, only to be immolated in midair, leaving a brief plume of smoke and a medium-well carcass.
BrightSource Energy’s state-of-the-art plant in the Mojave Desert is the largest solar thermal power plant on earth — and the deadliest.
Federal wildlife officials counted an average of one “streamer” every two minutes. The energy company estimates that only 1,000 birds are scorched each year, while a prominent environmental group puts the number at 28,000.
Federal and state biologists call the number of deaths significant, based on sightings of birds getting singed and falling, and on retrieval of carcasses with feathers charred too severely for flight.
Ivanpah officials dispute the source of the so-called streamers, saying at least some of the puffs of smoke mark insects and bits of airborne trash being ignited by the solar rays.
Wildlife officials who witnessed the phenomena say many of the clouds of smoke were too big to come from anything but a bird, and they add that they saw “birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently become a streamer.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say they want a death toll for a full year of operation.
Given the apparent scale of bird deaths at Ivanpah, authorities should thoroughly track bird kills there for a year, including during annual migratory seasons, before granting any more permits for that kind of solar technology, said [Garry] George, of the Audubon Society.
The facility has concerned environmentalists in the past, as its construction bladed over 3,500 acres of virgin desert. Being California, the state government required BrightSource to relocate a bunch of desert gopher tortoises to the tune of $22 million. The installation also endangers pilots flying the busy Los Angeles–Las Vegas corridor; they can be dazzled by the intense light.
It remains to be seen if regulators will stop the plant’s operation, but at least the world’s largest bug zapper should educate environmentalists and green energy boosters.
For too long, the public has been told that energy production is less a matter of physics than one of morality. Renewable energy like solar and wind are sold as “good” while reliable energy sources like oil and coal are “evil.” Methods like hydroelectric, nuclear and natural gas all were initially sold as clean and green, but became demonized the instant they turned a profit or revealed unintended consequences.
Per Thomas Sowell, “there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” Oil and coal are dirty, but they’re cheap and efficient. Dams are dangerous to build, but reliable and prevent flooding downstream. They also create man-made reservoirs, which environmentalists alternately love and hate.
Nuclear produces vast amounts of energy and emits only water vapor, but holds the risk of radiation and long-term storage. Currently, solar and wind produce minimal energy at high cost — both in financial terms and, apparently, avian longevity rates. Yet both are renewable and are a great option for certain applications (especially off-the-grid living).
Hopefully, BrightSource Energy will solve the “streamer” issue and help make solar a viable energy source for the future. But all energy consumers should heed the advice of expert Thomas Conroy:
When it comes to powering the country’s grids, “diversity of technology … is critical,” Conroy said. “Nobody should be arguing let’s be all coal, all solar,” all wind, or all nuclear. “And every one of those technologies has a long list of pros and cons.”