Environmentalists have hit out at a giant new solar farm in the Mojave Desert as mounting evidence reveals birds flying through the extremely hot ‘thermal flux’ surrounding the towers are being scorched.
After years of regulatory tangles around the impact on desert wildlife, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System opened on Thursday but environmental groups say the nearly 350,000 gigantic mirrors are generating 1000 degree Fahrenheit temperatures which are killing and singing birds.
According to compliance documents released by developer BrightSource Energy last year, dozens of birds were found injured at the site during the building stage.
State and federal regulators are currently conducting a two-year study of the Ivanpah plant’s effects on birds, with environmental groups questioning the the value of cleaner power when native wildlife is being killed.
Ivanpah, a joint project uniting NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc. and BrightSource Energy, can produce enough electricity to power 140,000 homes.
Larger projects are on the way, but for now, Ivanpah is being described as a marker for the United States’ emerging solar industry.
While solar power accounts for less than one per cent of the nation’s power output, thousands of projects from large, utility-scale plants to small production sites are under construction or being planned, particularly across the sun-drenched Southwest.
‘The opening of Ivanpah is a dawn of a new era in power generation in the United States,’ said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.
‘We are going to be a global leader in solar generation.’
The plant’s dedication comes as government continues to push for development of greener, cleaner power.
President Barack Obama has mounted a second-term drive to combat climate change, proposing first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants.
His plan aims to help move the U.S. from a coal-dependent past into a future fired by wind and solar power, nuclear energy and natural gas.
According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, the cost of building and operating a new solar thermal power plant over its lifetime is greater than generating natural gas, coal or nuclear power.
It costs a conventional coal plant $100, on average, to produce a megawatt-hour of power, but that figure is $261 for solar thermal power, according to 2011 estimates.
The figures do not account for incentives such as state or federal tax credits that can impact the cost.
Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the solar association, said in a statement that solar systems have seen ‘dramatic price declines’ in the last few years.
That’s good for utilities in California, which must obtain a third of their electricity from solar and other renewable sources by 2020.