Ivanpah Solar Power Facility Is Incinerating Birds

May 11th, 2014
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The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility is a very large solar thermal power facility.  And by “very large,” I mean very large.  In fact, it is so enormous it’s hard to even wrap your mind around how large it is.   It also cost about 2.2 billion dollars, which is quite a lot of money.   A reasonably sized nuclear power plant could be built for the same cost.  In the US, this would be difficult, given the regulatory costs, but other countries have built modern Generation III+ reactors for two billion dollars per unit or less.

 solarfacility

Of course, that’s just the capital cost.  It’s harder to pin down the operational cost.  As many will point out, it doesn’t use any fuel in the conventional sense.  But it does employ 86 full time workers, plus an even larger number of contractors.  It also has a lot of sensitive equipment baking in the sun, which is likely to need frequent replacement.   It’s hard to know exactly what it costs to operate the plant and what the cost per kilowatt hour comes out to be, because the operators have kept much of the relevant financial data confidential.

What is known is that the agreed price per wholesale kilowatt hour is “at or below” 12.5 cents per kwh, before time and demand adjustments.  That would seem to imply it is more expensive than other methods of power generation.   Published data indicates the cost of operating a solar thermal power plant is more than 2.5 times that of a coal or nuclear facility.  The Ivanpah facility may benefit from economics of scale to bring that down a bit, but it’s still clear that the plant has a much higher cost per megawatt-hour than a fossil fuel power station.

None the less, plants like Ivanpah are financially viable, at least for the time being.  They receive massive tax credits and other

But in terms of power output, it’s not actually that big…

The total nameplate capacity of the Ivanpah facility is anticipated to be 377 megawatts, when complete.  That’s not small, but it’s not really that large either.  In utility terms, if it were a standard thermal power plant, it would be considered medium sized.  By comparison, a modern nuclear facility with two generation III+ reactors might have an output of between 2.5 and 3.5 gigawatts.  Large coal and gas plants can be equally large and occasionally larger.

floatingpowersystem377 megawatts, however, would be enough to power the New York City subway system, but not during rush hour.  It would power a medium sized aluminum smelter.  It would not be enough to power a city of any size, but could provide the power used by a medium sized town on a summer day.

Of course, 377 MW is the anticipated nameplate capacity of the plant.  The capacity factor is only about 30%, meaning that the plant could be thought of as the equivalent of a continuously operating base-load power plant that produces about 110-120 megawatts.  Most nuclear and coal plants operate at near full capacity most of the time.  There are also many hydroelectric plants that crank out a continuous 120 megawatts night and day.

In utility terms, that’s hardly a lot of power.  It’s more than enough to power everything in many homes, but a power plant with this capacity would not be considered very large at all. It’s more in line with the kind of “distributed” power plants that might be used to provide local peaking and load-following.  It’s less power than a large ship produces.  Even a single 747 can produce more power when cruising.  It is, however, enough to power a few dozen small to medium sized locomotives.

So it is not tiny but not that big, and comes at a huge financial cost.

But there is another cost, not as obvious but a bit more dramatic:

The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility has killed quite a few birds.   Other things kill birds too, of course.  Wind turbines are notorious for killing birds.  Birds also fly into radio towers and they strike large glass paned windows.  But the the Ivanpah facility kills birds in a uniquely dramatic, even disturbing way.

Via Desert Sun:

Birds going up in smoke at Ivanpah solar project

A new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has labeled BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah project a “mega-trap” for insects and birds that may get singed or in some cases, burned alive flying through the intense solar radiation reflecting off the thousands of mirrors surrounding three solar towers at the plant in eastern San Bernardino County.

The Center for Biological Diversity posted the report to the California Energy Commission website on Monday as part of its testimony opposing BrightSource’s 500-megawatt Palen project, located east of the Coachella Valley, which would use similar technology — soaring solar towers surrounded by thousands of reflecting mirrors.

Read the report

“Although not analyzed in detail, there was also significant bat and insect mortality at the Ivanpah site, including monarch butterflies,” the report said. “It appears that Ivanpah may act as a ‘mega-trap,’ (original emphasis) attracting insect-eating birds, which are incapacitated by solar flux injury, thus attracting predators and creating an entire food chain vulnerable to injury and death.”

Solar flux is the intense radiation coming off the reflecting mirrors. At Ivanpah, the radiation is so intense it creates what look like small clouds around the boilers at the top of the project’s three 459-foot-tall solar towers. These clouds appear to be attracting the insects which in turn attract the birds.

….

“Ivanpah employees and OLE staff noticed that close to the periphery of the tower and within the reflected solar field area, streams of smoke arise when an object crosses the solar flux fields aimed at the tower. Ivanpah employees use the term ‘streamers’ to characterize this occurrence.

“When OLE staff visited the Ivanpah Solar plant, we observed many streamer events. It is claimed that these events represent the combustion of loose debris, or insects. Although some of the events are likely that, there were instances in which the amount of smoke produced by the ignition could only be explained by a larger flammable biomass such as a bird. Indeed, OLE staff observed birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently becoming a streamer.

“OLE staff observed an average of one streamer event every two minutes. It appeared that the streamer events occurred more frequently within the ‘cloud’ area adjacent to the tower. Therefore we hypothesize that the ‘cloud’ has a very high temperature that is igniting all material that traverses its field.”

The birds really don’t seem to stand a chance. The intensity of the concentrated beam of light is so great that they actually burst into flames as soon as they enter it. It’s reported to be a very dramatic (and frequent) site.

Exactly how many birds have been killed by the facility is more difficult to determine than it might seem. The report from the Fish and Wildlife Service cited 71 charred bird carcasses found on site. It is, however, a very large area, and it’s certainly not unreasonable to suppose many were not found, especially if they were severely burned and decomposed. It has also been observed that not all birds are killed by the beams. Some may enter in an area of lower flux or at a time of day when the sun is not as intense. In these cases, the birds would be severely injured, but not incinerated, and could leave the area before dying of the injuries.

So while it is currently difficult to give any solid numbers, what can be said is that this does not appear to be an uncommon event. In fact, based on what workers have been seeing, it happens many times per day.

It is just another example of a “green and environmentally friendly” power generating technology having an embarrassing flaw.

On whether the bird deaths are “worth it:”

Whether or not burning a few birds is a worthwhile sacrifice is a complex question.  Nearly all human development has some environmental costs.  Thermal power plants routinely kill fish larva and birds lose their lives as a result of skyscrapers, antenna masts and large glass curtain windows.

The Ivanpah Solar Plant has other impacts to the local environment.  Its construction led to a loss of habitat for a number of threatened or endangered species, most notably the desert tortoise.  It also is a major consumer of local water resources, despite using a cooling system that is primarily air-based and thus uses less water than alternative cooling methods.  This also does not include the total environmental impact of things like replacement parts, energy expended in transporting workers to work and the cost of eventually decommissioning the plant.   At present, there is little good data on the full life-cycle impacts of the plant.

At least in my opinion, the death of some birds might well be a worthy sacrifice IF the plant actually generated very large amounts of reliable energy and did so with good economics.  It doesn’t.  Thus, any added costs simply makes an already bad deal even worse.   So while nuclear plants may kill plankton and fish larva and hydroelectric facilities impact fish and aquatic life, those impacts are generally a small price to pay for the energy produced.  Here, you are getting much less than what you pay for.


This entry was posted on Sunday, May 11th, 2014 at 7:33 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Enviornment, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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21 Responses to “Ivanpah Solar Power Facility Is Incinerating Birds”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    Solar energy inspires passion, enthusiasm, and devotion, but unfortunately the litany of unrealistic, rosy predictions of a solar future constitute a fraud. We know this because of the unshakable physics that determines the sun’s capacity to supply energy and our ability to convert it into electricity or another useable form. Its supporters lie with statistics and attempt to manipulate the public into accepting what could only become a world of brownouts. To produce as much energy as a conventional 1,000 megawatt power plant using solar would require a 127 square mile field of solar collectors. One wonders what sort of environmental impact that would have.


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  2. 2
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    To produce as much energy as a conventional 1,000 megawatt power plant using solar would require a 127 square mile field of solar collectors. One wonders what sort of environmental impact that would have.

    You know as well as anyone that those who are putting up the money to promote solar have no intention of that happening, all they really want is to fool the public into believing that solar is a solution to global warming so that they can keep building CO₂ emitters.


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  3. 3
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Anon said:

    You know as well as anyone that those who are putting up the money to promote solar have no intention of that happening, all they really want is to fool the public into believing that solar is a solution to global warming so that they can keep building CO₂ emitters.

    Yes, that is part of it, and even better to that point the hottest new thing is solar/gas “hybrid” power plants, which are really pretty much gas-fired plants with some additional energy gathered from solar collectors.

    But I am increasingly starting to think that much of this is motivated exclusively by companies looking to just cash in the subsidies. You can make a lot of money off of tax payers and rate payers with one of these things.


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  4. 4
    PsihoKekec Says:

    Interesting, the desert tortoise that has the power to stop the military activity and cattle rearing in a large area, lost it’s habitat just like that. The power of solar compels you! Praise the sun!


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  5. 5
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    You know as well as anyone that those who are putting up the money to promote solar have no intention of that happening…

    Which is why I called it a fraud.

            drbuzz0 said:

    But I am increasingly starting to think that much of this is motivated exclusively by companies looking to just cash in the subsidies.

    Which is why as soon as these are lost, like as was the case in Spain in 2009, the industry there collapsed.

    Spain’s Solar-Power Collapse Dims Subsidy Model

    This is particularly telling as that country seemed to have the best shot at it as peak demand and peak sunlight track fairly well there in comparison to most places.


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  6. 6
    Engineer-Poet Says:

    The site for the Ivanpah plant was selected because it’s close to a natural gas pipeline. Yes, for all its square miles of mirrors it still burns some fossil fuel!  Even without that, at $18,000 per average kilowatt it is an utterly insane thing to propose as an alternative to nuclear power.


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  7. 7
    HingeThunder Says:

    Not a lot of people know the fact that Engineer-Poet states. Ivanpah is not producing “green” energy. It uses fairly large quantities of methane to keep its working fluid warm during the night (desert areas tend to cool down fairly rapidly then). So its problematic that there is any significant savings on the greenhouse gas issue. As we know, methane is terrible on that score. This is the real Achilles’ Heel of large-scale solar-thermal. They’d have been better trying solar PV. It still would have been a loser in terms of electricity production, but they’d still reaped a profit on the subsidies. That’s the thing people need to understand. These aren’t businesses in the traditional sense, making a profit selling a product or service. They make a “profit” off of subsidies.


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  8. 8
    Sigivald Says:

    But I am increasingly starting to think that much of this is motivated exclusively by companies looking to just cash in the subsidies. You can make a lot of money off of tax payers and rate payers with one of these things.

    Well, of course. That’s the way subsidies work


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  9. 9
    DV82XL Says:

    So without contributing any reliable capacity, wind will nonetheless make nuclear, by far our most practical and reliable form of zero carbon energy, less profitable. Existing plants will be caught in a trap and new construction will be discouraged entirely. Already the British Nuclear Group is complaining that it can’t build any new reactors if they have to compete against subsidized wind farms. Anti-nuclear activists are turning handsprings, claiming joyously that wind is finally replacing nuclear. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, nothing will be replacing existing capacity–namely, the coal burning plants that are one of the largest sources of carbon emissions–as demand increases in years ahead. That means carbon emissions won’t be meaningfully reduced, since coal plants will have to stay on line to provide backup.

    To make matters worse, if China doesn’t begin to limit its coal consumption by 2030, it will be “almost impossible” for the world avoid a situation where global warming stays below 2°C, a new study led by the U.K.’s Center for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment,released Monday found. So basically if we don’t start a program of building out nuclear as quickly as possible, we are cooked.


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  10. 10
    Satan_Klaus Says:

            DV82XL said:

    To produce as much energy as a conventional 1,000 megawatt power plant using solar would require a 127 square mile field of solar collectors. One wonders what sort of environmental impact that would have.

    To generate all electrical power currently used in the USA solely with solar, you would have to use an additional 0.68% of the total area of the United States for solar power plants, or about 1.67% of the area currently used for agriculture would have to be given up to solar power generation. It would certainly change the landscape.


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  11. 11
    Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    Their goose is cooked?


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  12. 12
    sdollarfan Says:

    The other thing that perhaps needs to be considered here regarding this massive boondoggle is the issue of sandstorms. I can only assume (yes, I know what you do when you assume) that the desert in the area around this solar facility gets sandstorms.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4Dx0zWZxo8

    I don’t want to even think about what is going to happen to those solar panels if and when a sandstorm comes barreling through there. Replacing the damaged panels every time it happens is going to add to the cost of operating the facility although it is perhaps difficult to say how much exactly.


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  13. 13
    Anon Says:

    It should be possible to design them to be able to withstand sandstorms they’ll need to wash everything down after one.


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  14. 14
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    It should be possible to design them to be able to withstand sandstorms they’ll need to wash everything down after one.

    I’m not so sure that can be done cost effectively. Hardening everything, not just the reflective surfaces would be very expensive, and in the long run, would only slow erosion down. As well, given that the installation would likely collect a lot of drift material, the cost of removing that, as well as cleaning needs to be considered. I suspect that a number of sites with otherwise good solar insolation would be considered poor candidates for these reasons alone.


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  15. 15
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    I’m not so sure that can be done cost effectively. Hardening everything, not just the reflective surfaces would be very expensive, and in the long run, would only slow erosion down.

    People have been building things in the desert for a long time so I’d say we’ve gotten to know how to do it (or at least the people who build things in deserts do).

            DV82XL said:

    As well, given that the installation would likely collect a lot of drift material, the cost of removing that, as well as cleaning needs to be considered.

    Just pipe freshwater to wash the panels in (and don’t bother correcting the idiots who say that nuclear has a bigger water use problems than solar).

            DV82XL said:

    I suspect that a number of sites with otherwise good solar insolation would be considered poor candidates for these reasons alone.

    If a site is on Earth it’s a poor candidate for solar power.


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  16. 16
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    People have been building things in the desert for a long time so I’d say we’ve gotten to know how to do it (or at least the people who build things in deserts do).

    Buildings that are expected to endure sandstorms like the Great Pyramids that have survived powerful desert sandstorms for thousands of years are very different from solar collectors, and were a solar farm built to anywhere near that standard, it would be very expensive. Remember that I did not suggest it was impossible – just not cost effective.

            Anon said:

    Just pipe freshwater to wash the panels in (and don’t bother correcting the idiots who say that nuclear has a bigger water use problems than solar).

    I was thinking more along the lines of bulldozers to deal with large drifts that might pile up around the collectors.

            Anon said:

    If a site is on Earth it’s a poor candidate for solar power.

    On this we agree


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  17. 17
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Buildings that are expected to endure sandstorms like the Great Pyramids that have survived powerful desert sandstorms for thousands of years are very different from solar collectors, and were a solar farm built to anywhere near that standard, it would be very expensive. Remember that I did not suggest it was impossible – just not cost effective.

    Solar isn’t cost effective anyway so it’s probably an academic debate. I guess it really depends on how strong a storm must it survive.

            DV82XL said:

    I was thinking more along the lines of bulldozers to deal with large drifts that might pile up around the collectors.

    Elevating the collectors could help (which they may need to be to track the sun) and you might be able to design it in such a way that the dust will fall off.

    Needing to use bulldozers a few times in a century per site probably wouldn’t be too bad, certainly it wouldn’t be the worst thing about ground based solar.


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  18. 18
    Notch Johnson Says:

    On perhaps a related note, but one I am skeptical of, I read that some of these solar power plants are having fire issues. They have insurance problems because of fire potential (insurance gets expensive when you have a major fire hazard) and in some cases, local fire departments are warning they lack the equipment to fght a fire at one of these facilities and want the facility owner to have to be required to have their own firefighting equipment on site.

    I can see how solar concentrators can start fires, but really what is there to burn? Mostly mirrors and collectors do not seem like much of a fire hazard, unless I am missing something.

    thanks.


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  19. 19
    Anon Says:

            Notch Johnson said:

    On perhaps a related note, but one I am skeptical of, I read that some of these solar power plants are having fire issues. They have insurance problems because of fire potential (insurance gets expensive when you have a major fire hazard) and in some cases, local fire departments are warning they lack the equipment to fght a fire at one of these facilities and want the facility owner to have to be required to have their own firefighting equipment on site.

    I can see how solar concentrators can start fires, but really what is there to burn? Mostly mirrors and collectors do not seem like much of a fire hazard, unless I am missing something.

    The working fluid is typically a flammable oil.


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  20. 20
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Notch Johnson said:

    On perhaps a related note, but one I am skeptical of, I read that some of these solar power plants are having fire issues. They have insurance problems because of fire potential (insurance gets expensive when you have a major fire hazard) and in some cases, local fire departments are warning they lack the equipment to fght a fire at one of these facilities and want the facility owner to have to be required to have their own firefighting equipment on site.

    I can see how solar concentrators can start fires, but really what is there to burn? Mostly mirrors and collectors do not seem like much of a fire hazard, unless I am missing something.

    thanks.

    I wrote about tis a while ago. Yes, there are examples of solar thermal facilities exploding into flames.

    http://depletedcranium.com/an-overlooked-danger-of-solar-thermal-plants-fire-and-explosion/

    They use big tanks of superheated oil. It is pumped under pressure. Leaks ignite easily. Some use molten salt tanks as thermal mass energy storage. If the oil comes in contact with the molten salt, it reacts violently.

    Thermal transfer fluid of this type is used in other industries and it is understood to be a hazard, which is they typically there is a lot of fire protection onsite.


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  21. 21
    Jack William Says:

    Hey i have saved your blog for visiting more posts in your website, by the thanks for providing valuable information.


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