Article Exposes Shallow Depth of Energy Discussion

An article grossly mischaracterizing the current state of research into avian mortality at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project quickly exposed the difference between rally-around-the-flag cheerleaders and those seeking to ensure renewable energy follows a sustainable path.  The piece by David Baker published on the San Francisco Chronicle website notes that only 321 dead birds were found at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project from January to June, and casts doubt on the work of scientist Shawn Smallwood who estimated that Ivanpah may kill as many as 28,000 birds per year; Smallwood's estimate was cited in an Associated Press story bringing attention to the incineration of birds at Ivanpah.  David Baker's piece regurgitates a BrightSource Energy press release, and the Associated Press article cites testimony by Smallwood, a scientist who has been published in dozens of peer-reviewed publications and reports.

The Chair of the California Democratic Party's Environmental Caucus RL Miller endorsed Baker's shallow article, and she describes the Associated Press article citing Smallwood's estimates as the work of "solar bashing Repub[lican]s."  In a Tweet from his personal account, Paul Rauber - Senior Editor of the Sierra Club's Sierra magazine - characterized environmentalists' concern about avian mortality at solar plants as "hysterical."

Neither Baker, RL Miller, nor Paul Rauber appear to be familiar with the avian mortality research conducted by Smallwood and other wildlife experts, and apparently prefer discussions about sustainability to be polarized and devoid of critical thought.  What Baker and his short-sighted fans ignore is the fact that in any search for wildlife - whether the specimens are dead or alive - you have to consider how much area was searched, and searcher error.  When looking for dead animals, you also have to consider how many carcasses may have been removed or substantially dismantled by scavengers before they could be found by searchers.  Even though BrightSource Energy's press release notes that only 321 birds have been found dead at the Ivanpah Solar project site, the company's own testimony before the California Energy Commission accepts that the death toll is likely much higher.  That is because the 321 dead birds found so far only reflect incidental discoveries or nascent search efforts that may only examine a fraction of Ivanpah's 5.6 square mile footprint, and ignore most of the desert surrounding the project where injured birds may land and die beyond the boundaries of search efforts.

Smallwood notes that the 28,000 number is at the upper range of his estimate, but his research illustrates that the impacts are likely to be significant regardless of the specific number.  As he testified earlier this month:
“If I’m overestimating by even five percent, so what? These are huge numbers, absolutely huge numbers. And what we’re doing when we argue over these numbers, which are based on hugely uncertain adjustment factors, we’re also glossing over all the chicks that were left in the nests, and these birds died in spring. Glossing over all the social interactions, all the ecological interactions. We’re just arguing over numbers which really don’t reflect on all the impacts.”
While BrightSource has attempted to downplay these numbers by comparing them to other sources of human-caused bird mortality, the fact is that BrightSource's projects can have enormous impacts on regional and rare bird populations in addition to these other human impacts.

If Earth's true enemy is human society's unwillingness to pursue a sustainable path, Rauber and Miller prefer to narrowly focus the war on fossil fuels.  In the conduct of that war, they are ready to enact the renewable energy version of the Patriot Act.  Their discussion of environmental issues is not about protecting ecosystems or biodiversity, it is about winning the war.  And even though we share an enemy in the fossil fuel industry, we differ in the manner in which we are willing to conduct the war and the sacrifices we are willing to make.  Rauber has previously characterized bird deaths at wind facilities as "trivial," and used the Sierra Club's official Twitter handle to endorse an article excusing wind industry impacts because they have not surpassed the impact of domestic cats.  Rauber's own article on the wind industry's impacts on birds then downplayed the significance of these impacts and overestimated the industry's willingness to self-enforce corrective measures.

RL Miller previously derided Los Angeles Times reporter Julie Cart as the "most anti-solar reporter in the mainstream media" because Cart's articles were "indulging Republicans" by examining the impacts of utility-scale solar on remote desert lands.  In other words, the enemy is reading the newspaper, so don't you dare take a critical look at our leader's policies.  That may make sense in a political campaign where 30 second soundbites and slogans win votes, but we'll need a higher level of discussion if we're going to figure out how to safeguard the environment.

Climate change is an urgent threat to the environment, but it is a product of our careless and unsustainable consumption.  If our solution to climate change continues to promote unsustainable consumption, and ignore ecosystem destruction and the erosion of biodiversity, then what have we learned from this challenge? 


  1. Wow. The Sierra Club is really lost in the wilderness. John Muir would be aghast at the direction his organization has taken.

  2. I'd considered ending my decades long support of the Sierra Club for their support of energy development on undisturbed California desert. Rauber's comment likely just sealed the deal.


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