Solar Power Lower Risk to Birds Than Cats, Cars or Cell Towers

Aug 21, 2014 12:01 am ET

Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Solar-thermal power plants in the U.S. are less likely to kill birds than automobiles, cats or communication towers, despite reports that say the facilities pose a significant threat to avian life.

There were 321 “avian fatalities” in the first half of this year at the 392-megawatt Ivanpah solar project in Southern California, according to a statement Aug. 19 from NRG Energy Inc., which co-owns and operates it. Of those, 133 were scorched by heat produced by the plant.

That’s far fewer than reported in an Associated Press article on Aug. 18. It cited federal wildlife investigators who estimated that one bird was burned every two minutes by concentrated sunlight at the Mojave Desert power plant.

The estimates for birds killed by solar power are “inflated,” NRG spokesman Jeff Holland said in an interview.

A greater risk comes from cats, which are estimated to kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. Cars are responsible for about 60 million deaths, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and communication towers add another four million to five million. Wind turbines killed 573,000 birds in 2012.

The Ivanpah plant built by BrightSource Energy Inc. uses mirrors to focus sunlight on receivers atop three 459-foot (140- meter) towers at a 3,500-acre site. BrightSource and Google Inc. also co-own the facility.

The Ivanpah project has a “very substantial impact” on birds in the area, Kenneth Shawn Smallwood, a wildlife researcher and ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group, said yesterday in an interview.

BrightSource is developing a larger solar plant, the 500- megawatt Palen project in Riverside County, California. The Center for Biological Diversity has estimated that as many as 28,000 birds would die annually from flying through beams of concentrated sunlight at the site.

The environmental group National Audubon Society said solar power is not a major threat to birds.

“Birds face a lot of threats all over the U.S.,” said Garry George, Audubon California’s renewable energy director and chapter network director. “I wouldn’t say solar plants are a threat.”