Birds, Solar Power, and the Future of Renewable Energy in California

, senior analyst, Clean Energy | August 21, 2014, 11:59 am EST
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It’s an exciting time for solar, as UCS recently communicated its new report, Solar Power on the Rise. But with any strong surge in an emerging industry, unintended consequences crop up that must be addressed.

The latest challenge for the large-scale concentrated solar power (CSP) industry that builds power towers, which use large mirrors to direct sunlight onto a boiler atop a tower to create steam, is the potential for insects and avian species to be singed by concentrated beams of light and heat, called “solar flux.” News outlets like NBC have recently reported on birds dying from solar flux at the Ivanpah facility, a 392 MW CSP power tower project, built by BrightSource Energy in California’s Mojave Desert.

Mirrors from Ivanpah concentrate light and heat onto a single boiler. Photo: Howard Ignatius

Mirrors from Ivanpah concentrate light and heat onto a single boiler. Photo: Howard Ignatius

It’s still not clear what is attracting the birds and bugs to Ivanpah, how to reroute them or otherwise reduce flux impacts, and whether these problems would occur at other proposed power tower projects. BrightSource and its partner, Abengoa Solar, would like to build two 240 MW power towers in Riverside County, California.

There’s no question that when you build a large power plant–coal, gas, renewable–the things already living there will likely be impacted. It’s an acute concern and cause of tension in the West, where desert ecosystems host sensitive plant and animal species and some of the best solar generation resources in the world.

California, aware that it’s on the world stage and others are watching how it manages the permitting process for large-scale renewables, is taking many proactive measures to figure out how to integrate environmental impact considerations into project selection and permitting processes. It’s not easy to do because impacts can be very site specific and some don’t become clear until project construction is underway or completed. But, after a couple of years building these projects, California is learning from its experiences.

In early August, the California Energy Commission (CEC) hosted a workshop to discuss the role that environmental scoring can have in the project section process. The CEC has also dispersed grant money to six counties in California — Imperial, Inyo, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Luis Obispo — to develop and improve ordinances and general plans to help move renewable energy projects along. And the agency continues to take the lead on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation (DRECP) plan, a multi-stakeholder process that seeks to identify areas in the Mojave and Colorado deserts where renewable energy development is most appropriate.

In addition to following through on efforts like the DRECP, the solar industry should consider forming a more formal and ongoing relationship with individuals and organizations concerned about the environmental impact of large-scale developments. This would provide a way for people to establish consistent and productive lines of communication, and create a forum to have difficult conversations and incubate creative solutions. One model for this type of arrangement is the American Wind Wildlife Institute, which brings scientists, conservation groups, and developers together to document impacts and devise solutions to reduce the impacts of wind development, in order to foster a more sustainable and productive industry.

Despite the challenges we’ve faced, I am encouraged that the parties involved in licensing these projects seem committed to measuring and mitigating the impacts of renewable energy development on local ecosystems, while keeping in mind that it’s absolutely critical to transition away from fossil fueled electricity generation if the world is going to confront climate change and reduce the damage it will cause to our environment and economy. Many of the flora and fauna impacted by project development will also be significantly harmed by climate change. Given this, we must do everything we can to promote responsible and sustainable investments in new renewable energy resources in order to support a steady and focused transition away from fossil fuels, which we know is necessary.

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