World's Largest Solar Power Plant Scorching Birds

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Bye-bye birdies. The world’s largest solar power plant that recently opened in the Mojave Desert has a gruesome effect: birds are getting fried to death when they fly near its towers.

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The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System officially opened last week, a $2.2 billion solar farm containing about 350,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door. Those mirrors are aimed at three 40-story-tall towers. The concentrated sunlight boils water in the towers, which in turn generates steam that drives special turbines.

For birds, the towers are more like the Eye of Sauron. During test runs at the plant over the past several months, workers discovered dozens of dead birds, the Wall Street Journal’s Cassandra Sweet reported. “The dead birds included a peregrine falcon, a grebe, two hawks, four nighthawks and a variety of warblers and sparrows.” They appeared to have been scorched. Hat tip Gizmodo (warning: dead bird photos).

This system has the capacity to generate 392 megawatts — enough to power 140,000 homes annually, according to developer BrightSource Energy. Plans are in the works to build another plant near Joshua Tree, but biologists warned regulators that it could kill golden eagles and other protected birds, the WSJ reported.

So far the only plan to address the problem is a two-year study.

Ivanpah’s solar concentration system must have seemed competitive before construction began in 2010. But the new plant is already being called irrelevant. Business Insider’s Rob Wile noted that the new Antelope Valley Solar Ranch photovoltaic array will generate 1.5-times as much power as Ivanpah. Without the steam.

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I don’t think Ivanpah can be abandoned — it’s far too late for that — but there has to be a way to keep birds away. It’s also time to rethink new solar concentrator plans. By focusing on photovoltaic arrays instead, which have become cheaper over time, everyone is less likely to get burned.

Photo: The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System begins “steam blows” in April 2013. Credit: BrightSource Energy.

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