Solar impacts


Overall, I felt that the Oct. 26 story “Clean Energy’s Dirty Secret” approached the issues in a fairly even-handed way. However, I wish the editors had done a better job with one significant issue. The author often conflates the wildlife harms caused by solar thermal power plants with those caused by solar photovoltaic plants in a misleading fashion.

PV plants obviously impact wildlife onsite, but not in as many ways as solar thermal plants do — and especially not in the way that was the focus of the feature. Solar PV plants do not use concentrated sunlight to generate power, and thus do not have the (probable) solar flux problem that the author spends most of her column-inches on.

By not explicitly excluding PV technology, the article unfortunately misleads the reader into thinking that PV has the same problem. It does not. As the author surely knows, the amount of PV development is currently larger than solar thermal by more than 10 to 1. There are very few solar thermal power plants in the development pipeline, largely due to their higher costs, but also likely due to their apparently far greater impact on wildlife.

Nick Lenssen
Boulder, Colorado

Judith Lewis Mernit responds:
As I make clear in the story, large-scale photovoltaic solar poses a threat to birds that’s potentially just as devastating, and just as poorly understood, as that of concentrating solar thermal. It has been suspected of luring birds to their deaths, possibly by mimicking a source of water in the desert. I specifically discuss how birds were found dead near Desert Sunlight, a large solar photovoltaic facility near Joshua Tree National Park. I also quote a U.S. Fish and Wildlife official about the potential threat of photovoltaic solar plants that stretch for several square miles and reflect light the way lakes do. That agency’s forensics lab and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory include photovoltaic solar in their preliminary assessments of the dangers that all types of utility-scale solar power facilities pose. Had I excluded PV facilities, as Mr. Lenssen, an energy consultant, suggests, I would not only have misled readers, but committed an egregious error.