Solar power towers have had a reputation as alleged avian vaporizers since preliminary reports emerged in 2014 of birds being burned in mid-air as they flew through the intense photonic flux at California’s Ivanpah solar thermal plant. Their reputation was muddied even more during tests early this year at SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes power tower in Nevada; the solar thermal plant just recently began producing power. California public radio station KCET reported that as many as 150 birds were killed during one six-hour test in January.
It is obviously upsetting to imagine birds ignited in the name of renewable energy. (KCET reporter Chris Clarke, who has tracked the issue since BrightSource Energy began building Ivanpah in the Mojave Desert, described burning birds as “beyond the pale” in a recent article suggesting that power towers may be finished in California.)
But, upsetting as any killing of birds is, avian mortality is a downside common to many modern human creations—including buildings, highways, and powerlines. The best data on bird mortality at Ivanpah, macabre as it might be, shows the death rate to be small and likely of little ecological significance.
Meanwhile, operational adjustments at both Ivanpah and Crescent Dunes are pushing avian impacts even further below levels that could threaten local bird populations. “The data does support a low level of avian mortalities and hopefully, through adaptive management and deterrence, it will go even lower,” says Magdalena Rodriguez, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Continue reading
Solar thermal power cuts a fascinating contrast with solar photovoltaics and wind turbines — today’s leading renewable energy technologies — besting one on price and the other on quality. Little surprise then that it is being selected for power plants equal in output to large wind farms and ten-times the size of the largest photovoltaic installations.
Whereas photovoltaics employ semiconductors to directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal power stations convert sunlight into heat to generate steam and drive a turbine. This roundabout is, ironically, a huge money-saver. The mirrors, pipes, pumps and steam turbines that form a solar thermal plant cost less than half than an equivalently powerful array of photovoltaics.
Solar thermal cannot similarly challenge wind turbines on cost (at least not at present). But solar thermal plants can store some of the energy they capture and, as a result, produce a much steadier and more reliable supply of electricity than the famously variable wind turbine.
So why then did we hear so much about solar photovoltaics over the past decade and sol little of solar thermal? Because the latter is inherently utility-scale technology, whereas photovoltaic panels provide value one rooftop at a time. Fred Morse, a solar thermal pioneer and currently senior advisor to renewable energy developer Abengoa Solar, likens it to a bakery operating through the depression. “If you had a bakery and you sold cookies or big wedding cakes, during hard times you could sell a lot of cookies,” says Morse. “PV has little niche markets and it could grow and grow and as the price came down it expanded those markets to where it is today.”
These days, thanks to state and (albeit on-again-off-again) federal incentives and record fuel prices, solar power is back to wedding cakes.
For more, check out “Solar without the Panels”
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