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Story Publication logo March 5, 2015

The Fall of Icarus: Ivanpah's Solar Controversy

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Rows of heliostats at Ivanpah follow the sun all day. Image by Akshay Deverakonda. United States, 2014.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is a jewel in southern California's Mojave Desert, a blue ocean of glass amongst the sand and rugged hills. Hundreds of thousands of mirrors, called heliostats, surround Ivanpah's three towers, and follow the sun. The towers, at 459 feet tall, would dwarf the Statue of Liberty. The heliostats, each larger than a grown man, follow the sun and reflect its energy toward boilers at the top of each tower. The boilers, which create enough steam to spin an electricity-generating turbine, glow, the pinnacle of an awe-inspiring interplay of glass, steel, and light.

At 3,500 acres, Ivanpah is more than four times as large as New York City's Central Park and would cover more than 2,600 football fields. And as the largest solar thermal plant in the world, it is the vanguard of a new wave of renewable energy – infinite energy, originating from sunlight, which illuminates a path to an increasingly bright future against dire climate predictions.

Unless you fly through it.

Although Ivanpah and other facilities like it have brought hope for a new world of clean electricity, this awesome field of solar energy production has also become an avian deathtrap, critics say. This has created a new dilemma for environmentalists – one that has sometimes pit green energy proponents against conservationists.

Unsuspecting birds fly through Ivanpah's airspace, where the superheated air between the heliostats and the towers can reach temperatures as high as 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Flesh catches fire as the birds are ignited in midair. Indeed, surveys of bird deaths at Ivanpah reveal that the facility is responsible for deaths of a wide variety of birds, including the common Mourning Dove, the pink-throated Anna's Hummingbird, and the Greater Roadrunner, the inspiration for the famous cartoon speed demon.

When the carcasses are collected, their feathers are singed, their wings are burned away. The workers at Ivanpah have taken to calling these birds "streamers," after the smoke that streams as these macabre comets hurtle across the sky.

Ileene Anderson, of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a conservation advocacy nonprofit, noted that there are other causes of avian casualties — at Ivanpah as well as at two other southern Californian solar plants, Desert Sunlight and Genesis. Some birds are electrocuted by equipment, others are injured by collisions with plant structures. An array of solar panels may resemble a lake to birds who then try to land on it.

In July of 2012, scientists from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement visited Ivanpah, Desert Sunlight, and Genesis as part of an informal effort to investigate bird deaths. Over the course of the next seventeen months, they recorded over 230 casualties of a wide variety of bird species. While only intended for internal use, the resulting report caused a firestorm amongst ecological activists when Press-Enterprise, a media company in Riverside County, California, obtained it and released it to the public in April of 2014 through a Freedom of Information Act request. To the dismay and frustration of scientists working at Ivanpah, media articles highlighted the report's description of Ivanpah as a "mega-trap" for wildlife.

Jeff Holland, a spokesman for NRG, one of the three companies in charge of Ivanpah, dismissed such media coverage as sensationalist. When Ivanpah began operations in October of 2013, many environmental and conservation groups were watching it carefully, including the Center for Biological Diversity. Of the many species that were found dead between the three solar plants, one bird in particular, found at Desert Sunlight, caught attention of experts at the CBD. Anderson explained that in August of 2014, the CBD filed a notice of intent with the federal government to sue the Department of the Interior over the deaths of the Yuma Clapper Rail, a federally listed endangered species. There are fewer than 1,000 of this bird left in the wild. Environmental groups have been using litigation to force the federal government to step in and require companies to address wildlife concerns at current and proposed solar plants.

The recent surge in industrial solar projects is due in part to the federal government's 2009 stimulus package, which included a 30% production tax credit that made industrial solar more economically viable. NRG, Brightsource, and Google, the companies managing Ivanpah, received a $1.6 billion loan from the Department of Energy to this end. The Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, spoke at the dedication ceremony for Ivanpah, declaring that "…this project is a symbol of the exciting progress we've seen across the industry." Even President Barack Obama alluded to this progress when he mentioned during his 2015 State of the Union address that "…every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008."

Doug Davis compliance officer at NRG, the energy company managing day-to-day operations at Ivanpah, is quick to point out statistics that he says best represent it.
"We want the numbers to speak for themselves," he said.

Far from the quaint images of rooftop solar panels, Ivanpah is the first of many industrial projects in the works as both the production and scale of renewable energy ramp up across the nation. Over 8 million hours of manpower went into the construction of Ivanpah, eventually forecasted to provide 392 megawatts of power for 140,000 homes, roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Savannah, Georgia, or Pasadena, California.

Janine Blaeloch of the Western Lands Project, a group dedicated to the preservation of public lands, said such figures were attributes of "Big Solar." With the recent growth of Big Solar, energy developers have been trying to balance their own growth with managing wildlife concerns. Planning documents for Ivanpah, submitted to the California Energy Commission, reveal that NRG, Brightsource, and Google strove to mitigate wildlife concerns by locating Ivanpah away from major biodiversity hotpots and wildlife corridors in the Mojave Desert. However, 38 of the 71 avian species listed in the Fish & Wildlife Service report were listed as "migratory," indicating the difficulty of avoiding birds entirely.

"People don't realize deserts are important," noted Blaeloch, emphasizing the flora and fauna in the Mojave Desert. Many of the species found in the Mojave are endemic to the region, meaning all members of that species are entirely located within that specific area. Contrary to the typical perception of deserts as barren areas, they are, in fact, biologically rich. Many endangered or threatened species live in these fragile desert ecosystems, including the Yuma Clapper Rail. One threatened species, the desert tortoise, received most of the attention before and during construction of Ivanpah. When construction began, workers expected to find 30 tortoises on site. There were actually over 170. These tortoises were successfully relocated, as part of the largest private study on desert tortoises ever done, and the three companies funded hatching, rearing, and releasing of over 50 tortoises in a dedicated nursery on site. Additionally, special-status plants were transplanted to a designated area also at Ivanpah.

A common critique of Blaeloch's "Big Solar" by environmentalists is that no one anticipated problems with birds specifically. However, biological assessment plans for Ivanpah submitted to the Bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission in fact reveal plans for adjusting operations in order to minimize avian casualties. They include reducing operations during inclement weather to avoid harming birds that fly closer to the ground, and thus to Ivanpah's solar flux field. The plans also focused on minimizing casualties relating to collisions with equipment. Davis, of NRG, maintained that despite these measures, there is more to be done.

"Anytime we [do] something new, there'll be bugs," he explained. "There's a learning curve to this."

Despite this learning curve, NRG, Brightsource, and Google did try to anticipate as many wildlife impacts as possible. However, the Fish & Wildlife Service report states that, if anything, insects were the cause of most avian fatalities. Their attraction to the lighting at solar plants attracted predators, namely small birds, which, in turn, attracted larger birds. Ivanpah was thus referred to as a "mega-trap," an area that attracts animals of all sizes.

This unintended consequence of Ivanpah's design illustrates Big Solar's untested nature. Professor John Swaddle, an ornithologist at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, notes the lack of large-scale research on the effects of industrial solar on wildlife populations.

"As far as I am aware, there are only three sites globally that have been studied sufficiently to understand the influence of large solar installations on bird populations, two of [which] are in California," he said. Since Ivanpah became operational, NRG and Brightsource staff have been working towards solutions to make up for this lack of research.

"We've learned a lot in 2014," said Davis, pointing to his staff's greater understanding of the bird species that frequent Ivanpah. "We are learning and implementing."

Davis sees his work as fluid, calling it "adaptive management." Since avian casualties have become apparent, NRG has begun trials on different best management practices, including different lighting around Ivanpah to reduce insect attraction. They are also conducting experiments involving diffusing the flux created during operation in order to minimize areas of high temperature without compromising electricity generation.

Davis still incensed about the media's decision to focus on Ivanpah, wondering why they chose this particular site.

"I've been asking myself that question for the last five years," he sighed. "First tortoises and now this."

Ivanpah was one of the first industrial-scale plants to go through the application process with the California Energy Commission and one of the first go online, in October of 2013. It is thus seen as a case study for large scale renewable energy. Furthermore, there is a lack of objective data on how many birds are killed or injured, which has opened the gates to speculation. Even the Fish & Wildlife Service report was never meant to be a formal scientific study.

Brightsource maintains that only slightly more than 300 birds were killed last year at Ivanpah, while Dr. Shawn Smallwood, an independent scientist, testified before the California Energy Commission that over 28,000 birds would be incinerated at Ivanpah in a year. While he admitted that his calculations were "back-of-the-napkin-level," that qualifier was lost, as his estimate became the latest pull in a tug of war between sides that both claim the mantle of scientific rigor.

"Everyone wants to do the right thing, but everyone wants to also serve their own causes," said Jeff Holland, the NRG spokesperson.

Currently, NRG, Brightsource, and Google are working with H.T. Harvey & Associates, an environmental consulting group, to conduct quarterly studies of Ivanpah, reports from which are submitted to the California Energy Commission and are publicly available. The scientists at H.T. Harvey & Associates were approved not only by Davis, but also by the Bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission. They are conducting transects across certain parts of Ivanpah. The researchers neither have the time nor the resources to visit the entirety of Ivanpah; instead, they use a mathematical model to estimate what is happening at the site as a whole. Additionally, company representatives, H.T. Harvey scientists, and officials from federal/state agencies are involved in a Technical Advisory Commission that meets seasonally and discusses practices to implement on the ground at Ivanpah.

With only a full year of studies completed through H.T. Harvey, it's still up in the air whether improvements at Ivanpah are effective in reducing avian casualties. Factors such as seasonal migration that may skew certain estimates have to be taken into account. NRG officials concede that completely eliminating fatalities is impossible.

"I do think we can get down to single digits," Davis said hopefully, referring to the fatality estimates in each quarterly report.

On the other side, even conservation advocates maintained that in principle, industrial solar was not unacceptable.

"There are ways of going about it to reduce conflicts with wildlife," Ileene Anderson of the CBD said. "Often times, people look for conflicts on issues, but solar and renewable energy should be done the right way."

For better or for worse, "Big Solar" is marching on despite the looming expiration of the production tax credit at the end of 2016 that was a boon to projects like Ivanpah.

Currently, a potential solar plant to be built in the middle of a major migratory bird pathway next to Joshua Tree National Park is wending its way through the approval process with the California Energy Commission. Although Brightsource originally intended to develop it in collaboration with Abengoa, another solar developer, it recently sold its stake in the project to Abengoa. The new project's advocates, and others for other plants around the country, have their eyes on Ivanpah to avoid its problems and poor publicity. In the meantime, Davis and other site managers are learning and adapting.

And as they do so, the birds will continue to soar around the glittering towers of Ivanpah.


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