The world’s largest solar power plant, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, officially opened for business a few days ago, but not all environmentalists are happy about it. The plant consists of 350,000 mirrors spread across 5 square miles, and it works by concentrating sunlight to boil water in a series of enormous towers hooked up to steam generators. That incredible amount of heat does more than just generate power, however; it also fries any birds that happen to fly over the plant.
This has actually been a known side effect of this type of solar plant from the start, and it’s a concern that may keep similar projects from being approved in the US. The air above the plant can reach temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (537 Celsius), and the reflective surface of the mirrors resembles a lake, which biologists say could end up luring birds to their deaths.
The way the plant scorches birds is horrifying, but the California Energy Commission believes the loss of wildlife — about eleven birds a month — is a price worth paying for 140,000 sustainably-powered homes. While any loss of life is upsetting, the fact of the matter is it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of birds killed by other forms of human infrastructure: an estimated minimum of 300 million birds a year are killed simply by colliding into buildings. Even domesticated cats kill far greater numbers of birds each year. And other forms of clean energy can be just as problematic as the tower solar plants, with wind turbines killing at least 10,000 birds a year (some of them bald eagles).
No power generating system that harms wildlife is ideal, but this type of solar plant is still vastly less harmful to birds than the alternatives. After all, coal-fired plants harm more than a handful of birds each month — they release greenhouse gasses and toxic pollutants, warming the planet and making people and animals near the plants ill. Unlike a nuclear power plant, the catastrophic failure of a solar plant won’t leave the surrounding area tainted with radioactivity for decades or centuries to come. It’s likely the Ivanpah plant will remain controversial due to the bird death toll, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s far less damaging to the environment than the other energy sources we’re already using.
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