A Bird sitting on top of a solar panel.

Summary

  • The number of birds perishing due to solar panel facilities is nothing compared to other environmental calamities like global warming. Renewable energy plays a huge role in helping to tackle climate change, and the industry is working hard for future solar energy projects to work in harmony with the natural environment.
  • Concentrated solar power (CSP) plants are the main worry when it comes to protecting birds. In 2015 the Ivanpah solar site was responsible for the deaths of around seven birds per gigawatt-hour of electricity produced—an estimated 6,000 birds over one year.
  • Ground-mounted solar panels are responsible for some bird collisions. The birds see a reflection of the sky in the solar panel and think they are flying into an unobstructed path. The exact numbers of birds killed are unknown, but a lot of money is being invested into automated bird monitoring technology.
  • Many bird species are in decline, and it is well accepted that habitat loss is one of the leading causes. Solar power sites play a part in bird displacement, but by working closely with developers and elected officials, solar sites are carefully chosen, taking birds and their habitats into consideration.

Introduction

Climate change poses one of the greatest threats to birds, wildlife and people worldwide. So there is tremendous support for implementing renewable energy to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  It is crucial, however, that renewable energy deployment takes place in harmony with the natural environment.

Solar energy is now one of the most popular forms of renewable energy due to its low cost, clean power production, and safe investment options. Solar technologies do not pose a significant risk to biodiversity at the domestic or small-scale level or when deployed on rooftops or within other built infrastructure environments. However, there is some concern over concentrated solar power (CSP).

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The Impacts of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) on Birds

It was reported that the Ivanpah heliostat killed about seven birds per gigawatt-hour of electricity produced—more than an estimated 6,000 birds over one year.

An illustration of a heliostat with lots of flat sun-tracking mirrors in a desert.

CSP uses mirrors, or “heliostats”, to generate electricity by either raising steam or using photovoltaic (PV) technology. The steam method, known as thermal solar or concentrated solar, generates electricity by focusing solar rays on transforming a fluid into steam. The generated steam then turns a turbine to power a generator.

Some concentrated solar installations arrange many mirrors that point to a central tower, known as a heliostat. This concentrated solar tower creates an incredibly high-heat area, which is what causes a danger to birds. The birds and the insects they like to eat are attracted to the light beam and surrounding mirrors. These heliostats are too hot for anything to touch—causing damage and even death to birds.

There are not many CSP projects around as intense sunshine, and little cloud cover is required to make this type of solar plant economical. Most installed concentrated solar plants are located in the US and Spain, with the most well-known heliostat found in California.

One concentrated solar tower in Ivanpah, California, hit international news headlines in 2015. It was reported that the Ivanpah heliostat killed about seven birds per gigawatt-hour of electricity produced—more than an estimated 6,000 birds over the course of the year. This figure is shocking, even when compared to the climate change impact on bird deaths due to burning fossil fuels—which is estimated to kill only one bird per gigawatt-hour. Due to the severe adverse effects concentrated solar towers have on birds, many projects of this sort are opposed.

Birds Colliding With Solar PV Panels

Currently, the only way to track bird deaths at solar power facilities is for a human to physically walk around the site and collect the bird carcasses.

Billions of birds die annually from crashing into human-made objects such as windows, communication towers and wind turbines. This is also a problem for solar panel facilities, which see thousands of bird deaths in collisions with equipment every year. One of the primary reasons for the accidents is that the birds see a reflection of the sky in the solar panel and think they are flying into an unobstructed path.

The damage caused to the solar panels due to bird collisions is minimal. However, officials worry about the impact these structures have on local wildlife. Currently, the only way to track bird deaths at solar power facilities is for a human to physically walk around the site and collect the bird carcasses. Not all solar projects have the budget to hire someone to carry out this job, so a lot of valuable data is lost, which prevents researchers from getting an accurate picture of the situation.

To help solve the problem, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has funded $1.3 million to Argonne National Laboratory. They are developing a monitoring system that can automatically observe bird activity. The research team developed a camera system that can automatically detect a moving object over solar array sites and identify it as a bird or not. The system can then determine whether or not the bird collided with any structure or record any other activity it is doing. This is all done using machine learning, an application of artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision.

Solar Power Projects Causing Displacement

The impact solar power facilities have on birds is primarily due to the land conversion and loss of habitat for breeding birds.

For decades, many species of birds have been in decline, and it is well accepted that habitat loss is one of the leading causes. Habitat loss is not just the removal or destruction of habitat—it also includes edge effects and habitat isolation. This problem is further exacerbated by the effects of global warming, leading to increased climate variability and damaging wildfires.

Solar power facilities’ impact on birds is primarily due to the land conversion and loss of habitat for breeding birds. How much of an impact the solar array will have on the birds varies from site to site and which bird species are most prevalent in the specific location.

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Closing Thoughts

Unfortunately, all energy development impacts habitats and wildlife—even renewable energy sources like solar power. However, looking at the big picture, the threat of climate change poses a higher risk to entire species than renewable energy installations pose to individual birds.

Solar power companies are trying to reduce their projects’ negative impact on wildlife as much as possible. They do this by working closely with developers and elected officials to carefully select locations for new solar projects that consider birds and their habitats. The renewable energy industry is also calling for improved methods to reduce bird strikes and deaths at all types of energy facilities.

It is important to remember that the number of birds perishing due to solar panel facilities is nothing compared to other environmental calamities, such as global warming. For a long time, humans have put their needs above those of the natural world. Projects that combine conservation with renewable energy are vital as they are a tangible recognition that nature’s wellbeing should not be an afterthought.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How many birds die due to fossil fuels?

When it comes to comparing the number of birds that die between renewable energy and fossil fuel-generated power, there is no competition. For example, Benjamin K. Sovacool, an American academic, found that wind farms are responsible for 0.3 bird deaths per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity. At the same time, fossil-fuel power stations are responsible for 5.2 fatalities per GWh. Based on these numbers, fossil-fuel power stations are 17 times more lethal to birds than wind farms. By replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, millions of bird deaths could potentially be prevented.

 

Why are birds attracted to solar panels?

Birds aren’t attracted to ground-mounted PV panels, but rooftop solar panels can create an ideal environment for pigeons and other birds to nest. The panels provide the perfect shade from the hot sun, some security from potential predators and an easy in-and-out vantage point for birds.

 

Can birds cause damage to solar panels?

For those who have invested in solar panels for private use, there can be some concern that birds could damage the system. It is true that every year, birds cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to solar panels—most due to bird nests, droppings, and debris. Another concern is that when birds nest under solar panels, they can attract pests such as squirrels and rodents. There are now bird deterrents available for solar panels, so this can be easily managed.

 

How many birds die from solar panels?

There are few records of significant bird deaths caused by solar panels. However, a rare and unusual type of solar power plant in California has reported some shocking figures. The solar power plant has a heliostat that concentrates sunlight, and birds have a habit of flying into the concentrated beams of sunlight, causing them to spontaneously burst into flames. This Californian solar power plant is responsible for accidentally killing up to 6,000 birds every year.

 

Is it safe for humans to live near a solar farm?

Although solar farms can harm birds, there are no dangers for humans living near a solar farm. People may have a few concerns, but most can be fixed or negated, so there is little reason to fear living by a solar array.

 

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