Is big desert solar killing birds in Southern California?

 

The threat large-scale solar developments pose to tortoise in the desert Southwest has been well established, but what about the technology’s effect on birds?

The question has been asked before — David Danelski of the Riverside Press Enterprise reported on it in Feburary of 2012 — but it emerged most dramatically last winter during the California Energy Commission hearings on a five square mile-sized concentrating solar facility that Oakland-based BrightSource, Inc. had proposed to build near Pahrump, Nev. Concentrating solar technology uses mirrors, or “heliostats,” to focus the sun’s energy on a "power tower" where fluid flashes to steam and spins a turbine. Those mirrors create a field of solar flux up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit; biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others, worried that “elevated levels of solar flux generated by the focused energy from the heliostats may burn and damage exposed skin and feathers” of birds flying through those fields.

Glare from Nevada Solar One, a concentrating solar plant.

Now, however, the relationship between large-scale desert solar and the avian community may be getting even worse. In July, Chris Clarke, a journalist who lives in the Mojave town of Joshua Tree, Calif., blogged about another potential impact of large-scale solar on birds, involving an entirely different type of solar technology: Large fields of photovoltaic solar panels, which turn solar radiation into electricity. Several species of water birds — great blue herons, bufflehead ducks, grebes and even a common loon — were recently found dead near First Solar's Desert Sunlight photovoltaic field near Joshua Tree National Park. And those kinds of birds aren't typically seen in such places — dead or alive.

What's happening? Clarke suspects that from above, a shiny field of glass might look a refreshing respite to water birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, the ancestral migratory route that extends from South America to the Arctic. When they land and find they're wrong, they're too overheated or exhausted to take off again. "With millions of years of evolutionary experience telling birds that broad expanses of glare and reflectivity on the ground mean 'water,'" he writes, "it's not hard to figure out why water birds might veer miles out of their way to head for solar facilities."

Dead water birds have also been found not far southeast of Desert Sunlight, at NextEra Solar's Genesis plant, another concentrating solar facility that uses parabolic troughs of mirrors to heat fluid. If Clarke's theory proves true, it might be that arrays of mirrors might have the same water-mimicking effect in certain regions. With 91 percent of California's wetlands having disappeared in the past century, this stretch of desert is a particularly challenging one for migrating birds, with not much to offer between the Salton Sea to the south and wetlands farther north.

So far, though, it's all speculation. No one expected to find these birds in the desert, and no one knows what to do now that they're turning up dead. "We really need more robust monitoring information," says Jane Hendron, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Palm Springs, Calif. "We don’t know if the deaths are occurring during specific times of day or night, when the moon is in a particular phase or what other complicating factors exist." For that matter, it's not clear that the birds deaths aren't normal." Absent these solar farms, how many birds would get overcome with the heat, weakness or fatigue in that part of the desert?" Hendron asks.

It's a reasonable question, says Garry George, the director of renewable energy projects for California Audubon. Birds' bodies decompose quickly, and the desert is full of scavengers. "A coyote would be happy to come across a great blue heron dying on the desert floor," George says. "You'd never even know it was there."

The bird puzzle poses the same problem that comes up almost every time an energy company develops on unoccupied desert land: The southwestern deserts just haven't been studied enough to predict what the impact of development might be. That's been true with the elusive desert tortoise, and now it's proved true with birds. "Movement of birds in the desert isn't something we know a lot about," George says. "We know where the stopovers are, but we don't know how they get there." It's one thing to map landscape corridors for migrating bighorn sheep, quite another to map migratory routes in the sky. "There's a big data gap," George says.

Hendron says that in the future, bird monitoring will be built into applications for solar development, just as it is with wind. George is hoping that opens up new opportunities for research, such as more comprehensive mapping of migratory pathways with radar.

"It's something we've been advocating for years," says George, who's been contributing ideas to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a massive collaborative effort to assign appropriate sites for renewable energy, due out in draft form later this year. In the meantime, he recommends following the sound guidance given by the DRECP's independent science advisor in 2010.

"Don't permit anything you might regret," George paraphrases. "In the desert, the impacts are permanent."

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor for High Country News. Image courtesy of Flickr user e pants.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Upper Missouri Waterkeeper seeks an Outreach Director to play a key role designing and leading activities and initiatives that engage citizens in water resource decisionmaking,...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...