Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Solar Facility That's Incinerating Birds

Stony Brook physics building
When I was in graduate school at Stony Brook, my office -- about half the size of my living room, but shared with three others -- was on the 2nd floor, called the A level. A-108, I think it was.

It's on the second floor in the picture to the left, just behind the rightmost window.

The department building was nice, because the corridors ran next to the outside windows, with the offices on the inside. There were big plate glass windows with a commanding view of campus, and a convenient wooden bar that ran across them as a barrier, just high enough to lean on and bullshit.

And bullshit we did. During Hurricane Gloria, when we were all standing next to these windows watching the storm, some of these big plate glass windows were blown inward and shattered against the wall behind them. But, fortunately, none we were standing near did that, though the ones near us were flexing inward, a bit like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The eye of Gloria passed right over us. The wind and rain blew like mad for a couple of hours, then it calmed down and we went outside to look around, and a little patch of calm, blue sky passed swiftly right over us. Then the wind started up again but in the opposite direction, and we all went back inside.

Anywaythe big plate-glass windows had problems with birds flying into them, so fake bird silhouettes were painted on the glass, to scare away the birds flying towards it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes you'd see dead birds on the pavement at the base of the building, and once in a while hear a loud thump, but all in all we were just young people who didn't freak out about a few bird deaths -- we were busy trying to learn physics.

Which finally brings me to this story, "Birds going up in smoke at Ivanpah solar project" in the Mohave desert in California:
A new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has labeled BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah project a "mega-trap" for insects and birds that may get singed or in some cases, burned alive flying through the intense solar radiation reflecting off the thousands of mirrors surrounding three solar towers at the plant in eastern San Bernardino County.
It gets specific about the carnage:
"Although not analyzed in detail, there was also significant bat and insect mortality at the Ivanpah site, including monarch butterflies," the report said. "It appears that Ivanpah may act as a 'mega-trap,' (original emphasis) attracting insect-eating birds, which are incapacitated by solar flux injury, thus attracting predators and creating an entire food chain vulnerable to injury and death."

Solar flux is the intense radiation coming off the reflecting mirrors. At Ivanpah, the radiation is so intense it creates what look like small clouds around the boilers at the top of the project's three 459-foot-tall solar towers. These clouds appear to be attracting the insects which in turn attract the birds.
Thre were 141 avian mortalities counted at Ivanpah over a 17-month period, from July 2012 to December 2013. "One third, or 47, were due to solar flux."

Worse, there were very many more birds incinerated wholesale while in flight:
"Ivanpah employees and OLE staff noticed that close to the periphery of the tower and within the reflected solar field area, streams of smoke arise when an object crosses the solar flux fields aimed at the tower. Ivanpah employees use the term 'streamers' to characterize this occurrence.
The article claims that one streamer was seen "about every two minutes." That seems like just a guess, quite incongruous with the number reported above, but assuming it's true, at 12 daylight hours a day, that'd be 373,000 more dead birds in the 17-month period, or 263,000 per year.

That's a lot of birds. Just at one site (albeit one big site).

I've gone camping and tramping around in the Mohave, and I don't know if there were that many birds flying around. Maybe -- I don't recall. Perhaps they're attracted to the activity at the facility, and the feeding possibilities from all the dead things.

Now (I don't want to use the word "but" here, which sounds like an excuse), I found these numbers from the Fish and Wildlife Service:
Estimates of annual bird deaths, by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2002):

Building window strikes: 97-976 million per year
Communication towers: 4-5 million per year
Transmission lines: up to 174 million per year
Cars: up to 60 million per year
Pesticide poisoning: about 72 million per year
Oil and wastewater pits: up to 2 million per year
Cats: hundreds of millions per year
Are they accurate? I don't know. It's a lot of birds sacrificed on the alter of human development.

My cat Oliver just killed a bird the other day and brought it into the house, and he's killed at least two more in his four years. But one of those was when the bird flew in through the open back door and crashed into an opposite, closed window on his way back out. Is that my fault?

I killed a bird a few months ago driving up to Portland -- it flew right into my car. Or, from it's perspective, my car ran right into his flight plans.

Albert Schweitzer
I read once that Albert Schweitzer, when he was working in Africa, would write at night in his cabin, but for fear of moths immolating themselves on his candle, would keep his windows closed and sit there sweating while he wrote.

I'm well aware that climate deniers and enemies of renewable energy don't really care about birds, but will (and are) using these bird deaths for political purposes. That's very low, but we are a low species, when you get right down to it.

So should Stony Brook have had a different physics building, all brick with no windows and everyone walking to work? Is it better to kill birds with solar rays than by destroying their habitat for development or altering their ecosystems through climate change? Was Albert Schweitzer a little bit out there?

I do not know. Unlike when I was young, I now whince when I kill the tiny ants I occasionally find near my kitchen sink. Is that a fake whince, a little show I put on just to console myself? I still kill them with a swipe of a sponge, and 15 seconds later have mostly forgotten (until now). If a bug is big enough I try to capture it in a container and let it loose outside. Do I do that for me, or for it?

I don't hunt but I eat meat. I've tried being a vegetarian and found it difficult after a few months; I give in to my urgings and weakness. I can't even read the occasional posts Andrew Sullivan puts up about the cruelty on the innumerable cows, pigs and chickens in our animal-industrial complex, or watch the YouTube videos made secretly by animal rights activists. I feel like shit just for saying that, even as I have a piece of chicken cooking in the oven.

I give my two cats every bit of pleasure I can, until they prance in the back door with a dead bird between their jaws, proud and happy as anything. I run around like a maniac chasing them back outside, yelling at them the entire time, chasing the storm away until it's blue skies again. I just had the carpet cleaned, and I don't want it stained with feathers and blood.

So Oliver -- and it's Oliver who causes all the trouble around here -- dashes back outside with the bird still between his jaws, where he lays it in the grass and looms over it 'til it dies. He clearly doesn't think twice about what he's doing, and I know he is just being a cat.


Dano said...

I do some naturalist work for a bird conservation organization. One of the things we do with kids and school groups is an outdoor game we call "bird hurdles" and it is an obstacle course thru which the kids navigate to try and migrate to summer-winter grounds. The hurdles are power lines, windows, cats, etc.

The kids are always startled and sad when they see that half(-ish) make it thru migration and our stuff is a large part of the reason.



Thad said...

Same issue with wind turbines I suppose...

Apropos of bird silhouettes on physics buildings, the connecting corridors between Birge and LeConte halls at Berkeley has them to help birds avoid the glass and get to the tree in the courtyard between the two buildings.

When I was there in the early 90's, we got a big roll of black paper and cut out some silhouettes of cows and surreptitiously taped them up. They should never have given us the keys to the SPS office.

tonylearns said...

excellent article. I
I am vegetarian and have been for 35 years. I started for envirniomental reasons and then migrated to moral reasons. Just not necessary to kill animals in order to live a full life.
I do think these issues regarding solar, wind etc should be addressed, but of course they need to be put in perspective.
you are right that most right winger are only interested in the poor and wildlife when doing so helps their ideological position.
It is not easy balancing priorities, but people need accurate facts. HArdly anyone knows the billions of creatures that are killed due to human interaction.