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California solar plant: Birds ignite into flames, burn up from solar plant glare

BrightSource Energy plant in the Mohave Desert
BrightSource Energy plant in the Mohave Desert
Wikimedia Commons

A California solar plant provides eco-friendly energy, unless you’re a bird on the unfortunate flight path over the solar mirrors' concentrated sun rays. Thousands of flyby birds have their wings seared, bursting into flames and plunging to the panels below at the BrightSource Energy plant in the Mohave Desert – an alarming number of avian deaths that now have the attention of federal wildlife investigators.

Reports The Associated Press via MSN News: “Workers at a state-of-the-art solar plant in the Mojave Desert have a name for birds that fly through the plant's concentrated sun rays — ‘streamers,’ for the smoke plume that comes from birds that ignite in midair. Investigators who visited the BrightSource Energy plant last year and watched as birds burned and fell, reporting an average of one ‘streamer’ every two minutes, are urging California officials to halt the operator's application to build a still-bigger version.”

Estimates are that close to 30,000 birds have ignited and died, highlighting the collateral environmental damage that the quest for green energy often yields.

The BrightSource plant opened in February of this year, at a cost of $2.2 billion, and employs 300,000 garage door-sized solar mirrors, making the plant the world’s biggest solar-to-steam energy producer. The solar mirrors reflect heat upward onto three giant boilers – "power towers" as the plant calls them – which use the heat to convert water to steam. In turn, the boilers operate turbines to produce electricity. Close the 150,000 homes in the area receive their energy from the plant.

Federal investigators called the plant a wildlife “mega-trap,” reporting that they saw “birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently become a streamer.” The plant is now on notice, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said they will continue to monitor the death rate of birds through the plant’s first year of operation.

Garry George, the renewable-energy director for the California chapter of the Audubon Society, called the number of bird deaths “alarming,” adding: “It's hard to say whether that's the location or the technology. There needs to be some caution.”

A new 75-foot boiler tower and mirror field in Oakland is under consideration. Writes NewsMax: “The proposed plant is on a flight path for birds between the Colorado River and California's largest lake, the Salton Sea — 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.”

The existing plant won’t be shut down because of bird deaths – all parties acknowledge that. However alternatives are being looked at, including “compensation” from the plant for killing birds. Explains the AP report:

While biologists say there is no known feasible way to curb the number of birds killed, the companies behind the projects say they are hoping to find one — studying whether lights, sounds or some other technology would scare them away, said Joseph Desmond, senior vice president at BrightSource Energy.

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. Opponents say that would do nothing to help the desert birds at the proposed site.

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