Compared to fossil fuels, renewable energies are cleaner, more efficient and much better for the environment. The last item on that list has become a point of contention for BrightSource Energy, which has been inadvertently frying birds in mid-air with its powerful solar heat rays.
In February, the solar company finished construction on a $2.2 billion plant within the Mojave Desert’s Ivanpah Dry Lake. It is a technological colossus, focusing 300,000 garage-door-sized mirrors onto three boiler towers. The water inside the 40-story boilers is super-heated into steam, the steam turns the plant’s turbines and the turbines generate enough electricity to power 140,000 homes.
It is a renewable masterpiece. Unfortunately, its drawbacks are proving quite ugly.
The field of mirrors is bright enough to blind pilots that fly over the California-Nevada border where the plant is located. Researchers from the Sandia National Laboratory rode with pilots to confirm the plant’s brightness and report that, while not bright enough to cause permanent eye damage, the glare is “sufficient to cause significant ocular impact (potential for after-image) up to a distance of ~6 miles.”
The brightness is annoying, but pilots told the Sandia researchers that it was not unmanageable. “It should be noted that two of the authors who were in the helicopter qualitatively confirmed these results after observing the glare,” they wrote. “The pilot acknowledged that the glare was very bright, but he also stated that it did not impair his flying ability since he was aware of the glare and avoided looking in that direction when flying over [Ivanpah].”
But this is not the worst of the Ivanpah plant’s environmental problems. Birds flying over the plant have been igniting in the heat rays produced by the blinding solar panels. Workers at the plant reportedly call these birds “streamers” because smoke trails from them after they alight.
This has prompted an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) service, which wants BrightSource to measure how many birds are killed in one year. Last year, investigators reported an average of one bird immolation every two minutes.
BrightSource would like to build a bigger version of their plant in Oakland, but FWS has asked them to cease those plans until a thorough impact analysis can be made on the local wildlife. The California Energy Commission has estimated that the larger plant would be three times as dangerous to birds as the current Ivanpah plant.