For the Birds

Birds die naturally and due to human causes.  One of these human causes is the multitude of ways in which we generate power.  Wind power has long been the target of ornithophiles but, in reality, the impact of renewable power generation on bird deaths has been largely overblown.

To provide some context,

Graphically, energy generation’s contribution to these bird deaths looks like the following:

Energy & Birds

But now, despite relatively low numbers birds actually harmed, there is a new renewable energy target.  Perhaps it is a bit of ‘man bites dog’ or the efforts of anti-clean energy interest groups but buzzing around world is news that the (relatively) new Ivanpah concentrating solar power (CSP) electricity generation plant is killing birds.  While Brightsource’s 300,000 mirrors might be killing up to 28,000 birds per year, this extrapolation is based on a number of uncertain assumptions.
In any event, as per the above, it is time to put things in context.  While renewable energy plant designs should take into account risks to wildlife — and take reasonable measures to reduce those risks — those screaming about the Ivanpah facility aren’t talking too much about America’s kitty cats reign of terror nor do they speak much about how pollution from coal plants doesn’t only hurt human health and endanger the climate, but also hurts animal health and damages habitats.

Yes, those 300,000 mirrors are — without question — killing birds.  Brightsource has given $1.6 million in recognition — and payment — for that damage and proposes using that money for a spading program to reduce the numbers of cats and, therefore, the number of birds killed by those cats. How many hundreds of thousands of bird deaths will be avoided with that money?

And, the Ivanpah electricity — now that the plant is built and running — is pretty close to pollution free.  No particulate emissions to hurt bird (and human) health. No greenhouse gas emissions to worsen climate change and worsen risks to birds (and humans).

Let’s be clear — there is no such thing as a perfect energy source nor a perfectly pollution-free energy system.  However, we need to place things in context — whether it be bird deaths or carbon emissions, Brightsource’s CSP system can (and should) be improved but it is already much better than the existing incumbents.

Those attacking Brightsource are, in many cases, the ones who shout the loudest about wildlife impacts from wind power.  As to that, perhaps we should expect the Audobon Society to soon release something on solar power similar to Audobon’s wind power position?

Audubon strongly supports wind power and recognizes that it will not be without some impact; however, harmful effects to birds and other wildlife can be avoided or significantly reduced. Every megawatt-hour produced by wind energy avoids an average of 1,220 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. If the United States obtains 20 percent of its electricity from wind power by 2020, it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 71 million cars off the road or planting 104 million acres of trees. Expanding wind power instead of fossil fuels also avoids the wildlife and human health impacts of oil and gas drilling, coal mining, and burning fossil fuels.

Here is one of the world’s foremost ornithology organizations promoting the development of wind power – despite its effect on bird populations.  But what if we went further?  What if instead of generating 20% of our electricity from wind we generated 100% from CSP?

To supply 100% of US electricity supply — eliminating not just coal but all nuclear, wind, rooftop solar, natural gas, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, etc — would require roughly 4100 similarly sized CSP plants. (And, by the way, nearly eliminate GHG emissions from US electricity supply. … Note that this is a highly theoretical construct that doesn’t comport with real opportunities.)  Lets be honest: these plants would almost certainly cause bird deaths. Lets take a reasonable higher estimate of 10,000 (the 28,000 figure doesn’t stand up to scrutiny (see link above) and even 10,000 is likely to be above actual figures) that works out to 4.1 million birds killed per year.  In order to meet 100% of the U.S. electricity demand.  Put another way, that represents 0.4% of the number killed by windows, perhaps .1% of the numbers killed by cats, and less than half the number killed by burning coal.

The systems for protecting birds from renewable power generation can and should be improved.  But arguing that renewable power generation should be stopped, in favor of existing power sources like coal, because it kills birds ignores the broader context of bird deaths.  It is, at best, short-sighted, and, at worst, intentionally misleading.


A version of this post first appeared here

Image Credit: Geof Wilson via Flickr


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