Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System has been getting a lot of media attention lately. Unfortunately, the coverage hasn’t totally been focused on reliable and affordable clean energy.

The facility, located in the Mojave Desert, is the largest solar “power tower” system in the world. Among its advertised benefits, the company’s website promises to avoid millions of tons of carbon emissions per year, provide electricity to 140,000 homes, and create about 2,100 jobs.

Ivanpah produces fossil fuel-free energy by pointing 300,000 mirrored panels at towers about the size of the Washington Monument. The panels reflect sunlight directed at boilers atop the towers, which heat water to create steam. The steam is then piped to a turbine where electricity is generated, and then transferred to Californian homes.

But lately, three problems have been plaguing Ivanpah’s public relations team.

First, the plant has only been producing about half as much energy as it initially anticipated. Clouds, jet contrails, and weather have affected the plant’s operating capacity. The Department of Energy says the project is still in good standing, but this setback does raise some questions about the promise of solar-thermal technology.

Second, those 300,000 mirrors in the middle of a desert are proving to be hazardous to pilots and airplane passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued warnings to pilots flying to Las Vegas and Southern California locations. The glare is visible from 40 miles away, and dangerously bright at six miles – meaning your pilot might be trying to blink that pesky after-effect away for several minutes.

Third is the somewhat irreverently nicknamed “streamers.” In a clash of environmental goals, Ivanpah’s clean energy objective has been battling against the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA): the facility’s power tower technology has been accidentally setting birds on fire. A phenomenon called “solar flux” can injure and kill birds when concentrated sun rays between the mirrors and towers ignite their feathers. The facility’s workers named the birds “streamers” based on the plume of smoke trailing behind the animals.

Under the MBTA, it is illegal to – among other things – harm or kill any bird included on a list of protected species, even accidentally. Some of these species have been discovered with charred feathers in the area surrounding Ivanpah. Needless to say, singeing birds qualifies as a prohibited action.

Estimates of the bird deaths have varied. The Center for Biological Diversity assessed a total number of deaths as high as 28,000 per year. A National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory report identified a total of 71 species affected by the facility over a three day period in October 2013, attributing 47 bird deaths to solar flux. But consultants at Ivanpah estimate that only about 900 birds are killed each year due to solar flux. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting ongoing studies to more precisely determine Ivanpah’s impact on the listed birds.

Although the Department of Justice has recently cracked down on wind farms for killing birds under the MBTA, legal experts do not see this problem as significantly thwarting the future of solar plants employing the power tower technology. One MBTA litigation expert has opined that companies may benefit from prosecutorial discretion by demonstrating a good-faith effort to address avian harm.

And in spite of Ivanpah’s less-than-enviable recent press, the facility appears to be attempting that good-faith effort. They have ramped up monitoring efforts, experimented with anti-perching devices, and turned off their lights at night to attract fewer insects (and thus fewer hungry birds). Most recently, they have installed a “BirdBuffer” on top of its towers. This device sprays a vapor of food products that the birds hate, including bubblegum extract. The company’s website ensures that the device is “safe yet irritating,” and effective at repelling the birds from the dangerous solar flux territory.

The sympathetic image of scorched birds has resonated in the media. Hopefully Ivanpah’s new measures will kill two proverbial birds with one stone: promote Ivanpah and the promise of solar energy generally, while simultaneously protecting threatened species.


Lorraine Baer

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