Streamer: a bird in flight that burns to death

Posted: August 18, 2014 by Andrew in Energy, flames
credit: M. mcClany

credit: M. McClany

Every year a number of new words are added to the English Dictionary. As renewable energy spreads across the world, they will add their own unique terminology. Wind turbines are well known for chomping their way through thousands of birds and bats each year. While photovoltaics are relatively benign, while they are intact, solar plants that use hundreds of mirrors to focus the Sun’s energy, are far from environmentally friendly. Now they have supplied their own unique and grim word.

“Streamer” a bird that burns as it flys through the concentrated solar rays generated by a solar plant’s mirrors.

Huffpost reports:

IVANPAH DRY LAKE, Calif. (AP) — Workers at a state-of-the-art solar plant in the Mojave Desert have a name for birds that fly through the plant’s concentrated sun rays — “streamers,” for the smoke plume that comes from birds that ignite in midair

Federal wildlife investigators who visited the BrightSource Energy plant last year and watched as birds burned and fell, reporting an average of one “streamer” every two minutes, are urging California officials to halt the operator’s application to build a still-bigger version.

The investigators want the halt until the full extent of the deaths can be assessed. Estimates per year now range from a low of about a thousand by BrightSource to 28,000 by an expert for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.

The deaths are “alarming. It’s hard to say whether that’s the location or the technology,” said Garry George, renewable-energy director for the California chapter of the Audubon Society. “There needs to be some caution.”

The bird kills mark the latest instance in which the quest for clean energy sometimes has inadvertent environmental harm. Solar farms have been criticized for their impacts on desert tortoises, and wind farms have killed birds, including numerous raptors.

“We take this issue very seriously,” said Jeff Holland, a spokesman for NRG Solar of Carlsbad, California, the second of the three companies behind the plant. The third, Google, deferred comment to its partners.

The $2.2 billion plant, which launched in February, is at Ivanpah Dry Lake near the California-Nevada border. The operator says it is the world’s biggest plant to employ so-called power towers.

More than 300,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, reflect solar rays onto three boiler towers each looming up to 40 stories high. The water inside is heated to produce steam, which turns turbines that generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes.

Sun rays sent up by the field of mirrors are bright enough to dazzle pilots flying in and out of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Federal wildlife officials said Ivanpah might act as a “mega-trap” for wildlife, with the bright light of the plant attracting insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds that fly to their death in the intensely focused light rays.

Federal and state biologists call the number of deaths significant, based on sightings of birds getting singed and falling, and on retrieval of carcasses with feathers charred too severely for flight.

Ivanpah officials dispute the source of the so-called streamers, saying at least some of the puffs of smoke mark insects and bits of airborne trash being ignited by the solar rays.

Wildlife officials who witnessed the phenomena say many of the clouds of smoke were too big to come from anything but a bird, and they add that they saw “birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently become a streamer.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say they want a death toll for a full year of operation.

Given the apparent scale of bird deaths at Ivanpah, authorities should thoroughly track bird kills there for a year, including during annual migratory seasons, before granting any more permits for that kind of solar technology, said George, of the Audubon Society.

The toll on birds has been surprising, said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission. “We didn’t see a lot of impact” on birds at the first, smaller power towers in the U.S. and Europe, Weisenmiller said.

The commission is now considering the application from Oakland-based BrightSource to build a mirror field and a 75-story power tower that would reach above the sand dunes and creek washes between Joshua Tree National Park and the California-Arizona border.

The proposed plant is on a flight path for birds between the Colorado River and California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea — an area, experts say, is richer in avian life than the Ivanpah plant, with protected golden eagles and peregrine falcons and more than 100 other species of birds recorded there.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials warned California this month that the power-tower style of solar technology holds “the highest lethality potential” of the many solar projects burgeoning in the deserts of California.

The commission’s staff estimates the proposed new tower would be almost four times as dangerous to birds as the Ivanpah plant. The agency is expected to decide this autumn on the proposal.

While biologists say there is no known feasible way to curb the number of birds killed, the companies behind the projects say they are hoping to find one — studying whether lights, sounds or some other technology would scare them away, said Joseph Desmond, senior vice president at BrightSource Energy.

BrightSource also is offering $1.8 million in compensation for anticipated bird deaths at Palen, Desmond said.

The company is proposing the money for programs such as those to spay and neuter domestic cats, which a government study found kill over 1.4 billion birds a year. Opponents say that would do nothing to help the desert birds at the proposed site.

Power-tower proponents are fighting to keep the deaths from forcing a pause in the building of new plants when they see the technology on the verge of becoming more affordable and accessible, said Thomas Conroy, a renewable-energy expert.

When it comes to powering the country’s grids, “diversity of technology … is critical,” Conroy said. “Nobody should be arguing let’s be all coal, all solar,” all wind, or all nuclear. “And every one of those technologies has a long list of pros and cons.”

It is a hard life being a bird these days. Biomass, wind turbines and solar plants. Oh yes and cats.

See the original report here

  1. Curious George says:

    That’s where roasted squabs fly in your mouth.

  2. Truthseeker says:

    There is a combined wind and solar power plant in Nevada, USA. I see it as a new oppurtunity for fast food … chopped and fried birds, untouched by human hands …

  3. Roger Andrews says:

    This is a problem with a solution. Build a parabolic trough system. Instead of focusing sunlight on a tower located hundreds of feet up in the air each mirror acts as a trough that focuses it on an absorber pipe located maybe six feet away. The absorber pipes contains a synthetic oil that gets heated to 400C, hot enough to generate steam to drive a turbine. The Andasol plant in Spain is an example.

    Parabolic trough systems aren’t cheap, but the birds will thank you 🙂

  4. craigm350 says:

    Reblogged this on the WeatherAction Blog and commented:
    “It is a hard life being a bird these days. Biomass, wind turbines and solar plants. Oh yes and cats.”

  5. The last two years I was in the USAF (1969-1971) doing communications equip repair, I was stationed on the top of the Mediterranean Island of Majorica manning a pair of 60′ billboard antenna transmitting 10Kwatts of power each, aimed at the horizon about 80 miles out. Tropospheric scatter of the quad diversity ( two transmitters, both Horz and Vert polarized, and two separate but close frequencies) which put twin beams of 4.5 and 5.5 MHz out across the open ocean. Was the technique of using the scattering of emf like you can see glare from oncoming headlights over the tops of hills, (effects intensified with fog), then recombining the signals from both polarities and frequencies at the base band level before demodulating the intelligence (voice and tty signals). This scattering and recombining effectively increased the range from line of sight (60 to 80 miles) to about 380 to 450 miles depending on height of transmitters and terrain.

    We would often observe sea gulls and other birds make dips in their flight height as they passed thru the beams, the internal heat generated in their tissues, caused them to fatigue, dip then recover when flying across the beams.

    When they would fly straight down one of the beams they would start to flounder then try to climb out of the beam, it took about 25 to 45 seconds of exposure to cause them to drop into the sea, most that fell to the surface never got back into the air. Never saw any smoke though.

  6. Ursa Felidae says:

    I contacted the Audubon Society to complain about windmills and they told me climate change will kill the birds anyway, so they’re for killing birds now in hopes to stop climate change and maybe save some birds.
    This sickens me!

  7. tom0mason says:

    I have also read that some of the birdwatchers in the area have seen flock of migratory bird shift direction towards the solar roasting hole. They have surmised that the birds maybe under the mistaken impression that the glittering light is water and therefore head for it. Either way they are a huge hazard to birds and insects.
    I wonder what the efficiency of this madcap scheme is and is it worth the avian loss.
    An old blog from December last year –

  8. tchannon says:

    Sick. If this was their kids you bet there would be safety guards.

    “Audubon Society”

  9. Ed Martin says:

    Plenty of coyote food, their population is booming.

  10. tchannon says:

    Good news from Australia, bird frier cancelled.

  11. Roger Andrews says:

    Tim: Read the operations manual. That station wouldn’t have fried any birds.

  12. tchannon says:

    This is all I found. Is it actually a different system?

  13. Roger Andrews says:

    The type of CSP array that kills birds is one where a huge number of heliostats reflect energy into a central tower, like Gemasolar in Spain. Any bird flying close to the tower you see glowing brightly in the pic will be exposed to temps of up to 700C and promptly fried.

    A different type of CSP array is the parabolic trough system, like the Andasol system I linked to above. I guess it’s possible that a bird might swoop between a heliostat and the collector but I doubt it would be there long enough to do any damage. Here’s the pic again:

    The Mildura system is a hybrid CSP/PV system where heliostats concentrate light into a central PV module located maybe 30 feet away (those mirrors are big). Again I guess it’s possible that a bird could fly between the heliostat and the PV module but it would be there for a very short period.

    Here endeth the lesson 😉

  14. tchannon says:

    Okay, it’s a matter of scale.

  15. Roger Andrews says:

    More a matter of flux density and residence time.

  16. oldbrew says:

    Another controversy for the Mojave solar plant:

    ‘World’s largest solar energy plant wants to increase its greenhouse gas emissions to 94,749 tons per year’

    That’s to run the gas back-up when it’s too cloudy or dark for solar. Seems they underestimated…

    A gas turbine power plant on its own would cost six times less to run than the solar one.