The Ivanpah solar plant went online last week, but the cost to wildlife–particularly birds–won’t be known for at least two more years.
Reports that the giant solar thermal array featuring more than 300,000 reflective panels and steam-driven turbine towers have been “killing and singeing” birds by heating the air to around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit near the towers, according to reports.
You can view pictures of the deceased birds here.
All power sources involve tradeoffs, but to date, wind and solar have generally avoided discussing the topic, often quickly shifting to pointing out the costs of other energy sources in defending their own environmental impacts.
Policy directives aimed to support the technologies often override such environmental concerns, as they did with Ivanpah:
Ivanpah can be seen as a success story and a cautionary tale, highlighting the inevitable trade-offs between the need for cleaner power and the loss of fragile, open land. The California Energy Commission concluded that while the solar plant would impose “significant impacts on the environment … the benefits the project would provide override those impacts.”
The plant’s effects on birds is the subject of a current two-year study.
But the cost of electricity from solar sources is and will remain higher than other natural resources, like coal, for the foreseeable future, according to the Energy Information Administration:
The Energy Information Administration says that it will cost new solar thermal plants 161 percent more to generate one megawatt hour of power than it costs a coal plant to do in 2018 — despite the costs of solar power being driven downward.
On average, conventional coal plants cost $100 to make one megawatt hour, while solar thermal plants cost $261 for the same amount of power. This data, however, does not take into account the impact of federal, state or local subsidies and mandates on power costs.
The solar thermal installation built by BrightSource Energy received at $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy in 2011. That loan was secured in no small part due to political connections, according to The Heritage Foundation.
Higher electricity costs as a result of policy directives and crony capitalism, something the Solar Energy Industries Association was readily willing to admit:
Resch said a key issue for the industry will be maintaining government policies that encourage development, including tax credits for solar projects that are set to expire in 2016 and government loan guarantees. “The direct result of these policies is projects like Ivanpah,” he said.
Once again, however, the claim that solar energy is a “free” or “no cost” energy source has been upended. Another BrightSource project is receiving similar concerns:
In response to BrightSource’s blueprint for its second big solar farm in Riverside County, near Joshua Tree National Park, biologists working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told state regulators that they were concerned that heat produced by the project could kill golden eagles and other protected species.
“We’re trying to figure out how big the problem is and what we can do to minimize bird mortalities,” said Eric Davis, assistant regional director for migratory birds at the federal agency’s Sacramento office. “When you have new technologies, you don’t know what the impacts are going to be.”
Ivanpah may be the first large utility-scale solar thermal installation in California, and also the last:
Though Ivanpah is an engineering marvel, experts doubt more plants like it will be built in California. Other solar technologies are now far cheaper than solar thermal, federal guarantees for renewable energy projects have dried up, and natural gas-fired plants are much cheaper to build.
That means the private sector must fill the gap at a time when building a natural-gas fired power plant costs about $1,000 per megawatt, a fraction of the $5,500 per megawatt that Ivanpah cost.
“Our job was to kickstart the demonstration of these different technologies,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in an interview high up on one of the plant’s three towers.
The plant is projected to produce approximately 380 megawatts “during the peak hours of the day,” according to BrightSource.
A technology that costs 5.5 times more to build and that delivers electricity that is 161 percent more expensive than coal, and that secures it’s funding through political connections is not the job of the Department of Energy–or taxpayers’ dollars–nor to “kickstart the demonstration of these different technologies.”
Not when it produces just 0.24 percent of the electricity in the United States in November 2013, according to the EIA.