Ivanpah solar power plant officials defend project in wake of bird deaths
By Jim Steinberg, The Sun
NIPTON >> From the air and from the ground, the three 459-foot towers of the Ivanpah power plant generate a light so bright it seems unearthly.
The searing brightness of the 392-megawatt power plant in extreme north San Bernardino County, not far from the Nevada border, has drawn fire from environmental groups for its potential damage to bird populations.
Reports of birds being evaporated from heat rays emanating from the towers “are alarming for us and everyone,” said Garry George, renewable energy director, at Audubon California.
These explosively charged allegations often focus around what plant employees have called “streamers,” — which are “streams of smoke” rising when an object crosses the super hot bright light streams emanating from the towers.
A report earlier this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory said that while agency investigators were told these streamers represent loose debris or insects, “there were instances in which the amount of smoke produced by the ignition could only be explained by a larger flammable biomass such as a bird.
“Indeed OLE (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement) staff observed birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently becoming a streamer,” the report said.
George said he observed that process as well.
The federal fish and wildlife investigators said one streamer was observed every two minutes.
Ivanpah is a pioneering solar power venture that uses reflectors to magnify the sun’s rays on tower-mounted boilers, creating steam for electrical generation.
Two studies to explain more about what is happening to bird populations at Ivanpah will be out early next year, George said.
One will take a detailed scientific approach to “streamers” and the other will detail bird deaths, with calculations to account for predation and other survey difficulties, George said.
Joe Desmond, a spokesman for BrightSource, one of the three partners in the project, said that between January and June there have been 321 avian fatalities and of those 133 were related to solar flux.
Desmond said in a statement, “When considering the impact of technology on birds passing through the concentrated sunlight, or solar flux, it is important to keep in mind the leading man-made causes of bird deaths:
•An estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds are killed each year by cats.
•As many as 980 million birds crash into buildings.
•Up to 340 million birds die from power lines every year.”
“This is a poor strategy to put blame on cats,” said David Lamfrom, desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“It has nothing to do with what’s happening at their three towers in the California desert.”
George said that the National Audubon Society is concerned about cat-caused deaths and Ivanpah.
BrightSource, in a statement, said its experts are “studying the use of humane avian deterrent systems similar to those employed by airports, and implementing other practices that go beyond conventional operational procedures to reduce bird and bat activity at the facility.”
These include the following:
•Active detection and deterrent methods, such as radar and infrared systems
•Screening and sonic deterrent methods
•Waste and water containment and insect control to ensure that avian species are not drawn near the facility in search of food sources
•Replacing the current conventional lighting with LED
•Heliostat repositioning to minimize that bright and hot flux streaming emanating from the towers.