A Lesson From Icarus: How the Mandate for Rapid Solar Development Has Singed a Few Feathers
On February 13, 2014, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) began to produce energy as the world’s largest solar thermal power plant. It was built on over 3,500 acres of federal public land in the Mojave Desert near Ivanpah Dry Lake, California. BrightSource Energy, Inc. developed the ISEGS with significant third-party investments and approval from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Department of Energy. The project was expected to (1) create jobs, (2) reduce carbon emissions, and most importantly, (3) generate enough green energy to power almost 140,000 homes. The project appears to have accomplished some of these goals, such as creating jobs and providing renewable energy to California, with additional plants proposed in other parts of the desert. However, despite these benefits and years of research and environmental planning, scientists have discovered that fast-tracking the national mandate for clean energy comes with an unexpected cost: the death of thousands of birds.
In the summer of 2014, just a few months after the plant started production, local observers noticed “smoke plume[s]” in the air when birds flew through the concentrated sun rays reflected off of the mirrors. The workers called these birds “streamers” for the image they created as the animals spontaneously ignited in midair and hurtled to the ground in a smoking, smoldering ball. These deaths are not an isolated incident where only a few stray birds might accidentally fly through the area—reports estimate that over 3,500 birds have experienced a similar fate during the plant’s first year, although the exact number is a subject of debate.
The ISEGS uses more than 300,000 mirrors on almost 4,000 acres to direct solar radiation to the collection towers, which can heat the surrounding atmosphere to temperatures between 800º and 1000º Fahrenheit. The BLM is the federal agency responsible for evaluating the project’s environmental impact because the solar plant is on public land. The BLM complied with its statutory obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and performed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to approving the project. In the Final EIS, the agency considered 25 alternatives, including different project sites and other solar technologies. BLM dismissed all but three of the alternatives as unviable.
While the agency followed NEPA guidelines, some environmental groups contend that the BLM rushed the EIS process, fast-tracked development, and failed to consider all of the appropriate alternatives
The Final EIS lacks a sufficient evaluation of the potential biological impact on migratory or in-flight birds. The Ivanpah solar reactor is the biggest of its kind, therefore few comparable solar plants exist that can provide insight into the likely environmental impacts. One of the proposed alternatives, suggested via public comment, was to build the project in phases so that the operational impacts could be studied before the full mirror field was completed and activated. The BLM rejected this alternative and failed to fully consider that the mirrors might have a detrimental effect on the environment. In the Final EIS, the only alternatives explored were slight variations of the proposed plan, and none of these alternatives included the possible impact the mirrors and the reflected sun rays might have on birds.
This Note analyzes the policy decisions, their implications, and the biological impact of the Ivanpah solar plant on the Mojave Desert region in light of the recent bird deaths. Part I discusses the initial push to build the facility, as well as the initial impacts to some species that the Final EIS analyzed. Part II analyzes the Final EIS and the BLM’s NEPA compliance by examining the alternatives addressed, the conclusions reached, and where the EIS was lacking. This Note focuses solely on those areas of environmental impact that pertain to wildlife. Part III discusses the other federal statutes implicated by the solar plant including: the Endangered Species Act (ESA); the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA); the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA); and the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA). Part IV addresses national environmental policy in the context of clean energy development versus wildlife protection, and whether a mandate to rapidly develop energy sources must override wildlife protection. Specifically, it looks at the green policy conflict through the lens of the development and operation of the Ivanpah solar project. Finally, Part V looks towards the future of clean energy in the Mojave. With three solar projects planned, and using Ivanpah as a model, Part V discusses the biological resource implications in those areas and proposes that both clean energy development and wildlife protection may not necessarily be mutually exclusive.
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