The $2.2 Billion Solar Death Trap That Could Scotch Solar’s Hopes

Ivanpah. Source: BrightSource  

The Mojave Desert is no stranger to death. It holds Death Valley National Park, which got its name from a group of European-Americans after one of the members died in the valley as they were looking for a shortcut to the goldfields of California. The desert's searing summer heat, however, is now being amplified by a solar power plant that's scorching birds as they pass through the power plant. It's a problem that could end up scorching the hopes of a key solar development. 

Going up in smoke
Built in the Ivanpah Dry Lake near the California-Nevada border, and not all that far from the Death Valley National Park, is the Ivanpah Solar Electric Gathering System. The $2.2 billion solar power plant, which was partially funded by NRG Energy  (NYSE: NRG  ) and Google  (NASDAQ: GOOG  ) (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) , began operations last year and generates enough clean energy to serve more than 140,000 homes in California during the peak hours of the day. 

In a lot of ways Ivanpah is similar to most other power plants. It uses steam to turn a turbine, which creates the electricity. What's different is that instead of burning fossil fuels to create the steam, it uses the sun's heat to create that steam. The plant uses more than 300,000 software controlled mirrors to track the sun and reflect it to the boilers that sit atop of a tower. When the concentrated sunlight hits the boilers' pipes it heats the water to create steam to turn the turbine. It is a system that has several competitive advantages over other solar projects including the fact it uses less land and up to 95% less water than competing solar technologies.

Ivanpah Solar Receiver Tower and Boiler. Source: BrightSource

The issue is that birds are flying between the mirrors and the solar receiver and being instantaneously scorched by the searing heat. It's so bad that workers at the plant call the birds "steamers" because of the plume of smoke that comes out of the birds as they catch fire in the air.

Too hot to handle?
According to Federal wildlife investigators who visited the plant last year upward of one "steamer" went up in smoke every other minute. However, estimates for the total number of birds killed each year ranges from 1,000 according to BrightSource to upward of 28,000 according to an environmental group. What's not certain is if the plant itself is drawing the birds because the bright light is attracting insects or if these birds are just flying in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

This issue at Ivanpah is calling into question the future of this type of solar plant. BrightSource has already applied to build a second plant near the Joshua Tree National Park and the California-Arizona border. That proposed plant, however, could be in jeopardy because it is on a flight path more than 100 species of birds, including protected golden eagles and peregrine falcons. Because of this, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that this proposed plant is almost four times more dangerous to birds than Ivanpah.

Source: BrightSource

What this means for solar
BrightSource is currently exploring ways to curb the number of birds killed at its power plants. It's studying whether lights, sounds, or other technologies could be used to scare birds away from the site. It is even looking at offsetting the bird loss at its sites by offering to pay to have domestic cats spayed and neutered, which would help to offset the more than 1.4 million birds that cats kill each year according to a government study. However, that solution won't do anything to keep protected birds from being scorched to death, which is what poses the biggest problem for the future of this type of solar plant.

Because of this BrightSource faces a real uphill battle as it looks to build its next plant, as well as keeping its current plant operational. Unless a solution is found there is a real risk that it won't be able to build this type of solar power plant in the future. That would be a big blow to the renewable energy industry, which is already facing criticisms for unintended environmental problems as wind towers also kill birds while solar plants are having an impact on desert tortoises. If these plants end up facing insurmountable opposition it would eliminate a renewable energy option that big investors like Google and NRG Energy are willing to pour billions of dollars into funding while also eliminating an option that can create more energy on less land and with less water. Suffice it to say, a solution needs to be reached or else one big solar option could go up in flames. 

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