The Habitat Cost of Green Energy

Bloomberg has an interesting article today on what solar and wind energy installations are doing to birds.

We’ve certainly known for a while that wind farms have a problem with birds flying into the turbines. In particular, raptors do this — the belief is that when raptors are hunting prey, they become so focused on tracking that they are oblivious to the presence of the wind turbines. Engineers have tried colors, patterns, etc. on the turbines, and none of it makes any real difference. As an aside, the Woodland Park Zoo has been actively involved in research to more definitively prove why raptors get killed by wind turbines, and whether anything can be done about it.

It turns out that solar energy, and in particular one kind of installation, also has a high rate of bird kills.  The Ivanpah facility, in the Mohave desert, is a prime example. It has an array of 300,000 mirrors, covering 3500 acres, focusing sunlight on three towers. Inside of those towers are liquid-filled pipes; the sunlight heats the liquid, which is then used to drive steam generators.

Sounds great, except that insects fly into the area — chased by small birds, in turn chased by raptors. If they fly into the wrong place, the result can be anywhere on the spectrum from minor injuries to outright incineration. By one report, this happens as often as one event (which could just be an insect, but also could be a bird) every TWO MINUTES. (morbid tidbit: they count “streamers” — when they see a puff of smoke near one of the towers, a sure sign that something just got incinerated).

The report linked to above is actually a fascinating read, evaluating bird fatalities at three different kinds of solar generation facilities, with all sorts of observations about why the bird kills happen.  At one kind of facility, the large array of blue solar panels looks like a body of water from the air, and thus seems to be more attractive to water-based insects and migratory birds. The good news in this case is that simply painting the outer edge of each panel with a white border seems to diminish the effect and decrease the number of bird kills.

Classic black solar panels mainly cause bird injuries and deaths simply through impacts.  Though to put this in context: it’s estimated that around 600 million birds are killed every year in the United States by impacting glass panels (i.e. building windows).

While some measures have been suggested that will help a bit, it seems increasingly unlikely that we will find a way to radically reduce bird mortality around solar and wind installations, short of trying to remove the prey that the birds are hunting. And that, of course, has its own downside, since we will be reducing available habitat. Even the Mohave Desert is habitat for a whole web of wildlife.

Green power is a huge improvement over “dirty power” in so many ways, but it brings along with it a whole new set of problems that we aren’t close to solving.

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