Saturday, March 1, 2014

BrightSource Makes Weak Case for Palen Solar Project

BrightSource Energy filed a relatively weak argument for why the California Energy Commission (CEC) should reconsider its opinion of the Palen Solar project in the Colorado Desert region of southern California.  A Presiding Member Proposed Decision in December recommended that the full Commission reject the project primarily because of the impacts on wildlife, but BrightSource requested more time so that it could make a stronger case that its project would not be a problem for wildlife.

The data submitted by BrightSource suggests its design is likely more harmful to birds than other types of technology, and that if the Palen project is built it would add significantly to the cumulative impact on birds in the Chuckwalla Valley region and pose new dangers.   The data submitted by BrightSource compares bird mortality at its Ivanpah Solar project - located further north near Las Vegas - to the Genesis and Desert Sunlight Solar projects in the Chuckwalla Valley area.  In the few months that BrightSource has been testing its Ivanpah Solar project - involving focusing thousands of mirrors to heat air above the project - it has killed at least as many, if not more birds than the other projects on a per month basis.  However, data across all three projects  -  Ivanpah, Desert Sunlight, and Genesis - is likely uneven because of the different technology types, locations, use of surveys, and questions about the effectiveness of those surveys to accurately capture the full impact of each project on wildlife.

BrightSource began operational testing the Ivanpah Solar project - focusing the mirrors - around September 2013, corresponding with a spike in bird mortality at the site.  However, the company only began conducting surveys for bird carcasses in November.  More time and study is likely needed to determine what percentage of total bird mortality is captured in each survey since each survey only covers a fraction of the 5.6 square mile project.  Even with the smaller sample of time and nascent surveys, at least 135 birds were harmed by the Ivanpah Solar project in 2013, according to the data submitted by BrightSource (not to mention killing or displacing over 170 desert tortoises during construction).

The Genesis Solar project, on the other hand, was responsible for at least 140 bird deaths throughout 2013, and the Desert Sunlight project killed 105.   Although the Genesis project killed more birds in 2013 than the temporarily operational Ivanpah project, the mortality rate at Genesis spiked during July and August and killed a different mix of species than Ivanpah, including water birds.   All three projects - Genesis, Desert Sunlight, and Ivanpah - pose a collision threat to birds; the reflective surfaces of the panels and mirrors confuse birds that fly into them and die from the impact.  But BrightSource's technology poses an added threat by burning birds in super-heated air above the field of mirrors.   Even birds that are not confused by the mirrors and simply traveling over the project can be killed. 

Imagine if the Genesis Solar project used BrightSource's technology. Arguably, the added threat of scorching birds would result in an even higher mortality rate during each month of the year.  BrightSource's proposed Palen Solar project would be built near Genesis, and would not only add to the cumulative impact, but also pose a threat of greater magnitude than either Genesis or Desert Sunlight.  Unlike the Ivanpah Solar project, the Palen Solar project would be built in proximity to the Colorado River and Salton Sea, where birds seeking water sources might confuse the expanse of mirrors as a body of water, a phenomenon at solar sites known as the "lake effect."

[Click on image to expand] The Palen Solar power project would be built near the Genesis and Desert Sunlight solar projects, adding to the cumulative toll on birds in the region with technology that not only poses a collision threat, but also incinerates birds in flight.
The CEC should consider how the Palen Solar project would add to a cumulative toll on bird species in the Chuckwalla Valley region - in addition to the Desert Sunlight and Genesis Solar projects.  Not only would the Palen Solar project contribute an added threat of collision, but it would also bring a new element of danger to wildlife with the super-heated air above the field of mirrors.  The cumulative impacts are reason enough to reject the project and consider alternatives.  Regardless, more studies are needed to understand the true extent of each technology's impact.  If carcass surveys only began at Ivanpah in November, when will they begin at Genesis and Desert Sunlight?  If we're going to build more of these projects, now would be a good time to study the true costs of the path we are about to embark upon to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

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