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Environmental impact of large reflective solar panels


Visitor Question: Currently the world is trying to move away from conventional sources of energy. For that, a better option seems to be solar energy. The only option for acquiring solar energy is a solar panel, which is also a kind of reflecting surface.

Currently we are losing birds because of that reflective surface problem. My doubt is we are already facing an environmental problem (destroying birds) because of large glass buildings. In addition to that, if we build large solar farms it will also might give the same effects. What do you think?

Editors Reply: Yes, this is an interesting environmental planning question. I don't know how the conversation is going in India, but in the U.S., the federal and some state governments have formed a task force to talk about just this issue.

As you describe, a substantial number of dead birds have found at the very large commercial solar installations that we have here in the U.S. especially in the California desert. The theory is that this is due to the "lake effect," in which birds mistake the glassy reflecting surface for water and smash into the solar panel because they think they will land in water.

However, environmentalists point out that fossil fuel power generation also kills birds, whether directly or indirectly due to climate change. In fact, the Aubudon Society, which is an organization of bird-watching hobbyists as well as professional ornithologists here in America, has said that climate change is the number one enemy of birds here at this time.

Nevertheless the Audubon Society applauds further research into this issue as it pertains to the very large commercial solar plants.

The most reasonable suggestion that we have heard is that the design of the solar panels needs to somehow signal birds that solar arrays are not water. Many birds are saved each year here because of the popularity of placing decals on large glass windows in both commercial buildings and residences. This apparently alerts the bird to the existence of a solid surface. Some people think that a design solution also will work when applied to the solar array.

Other suggestions have ranged from preventing the nesting of birds near solar installations to clearing vegetation that is attractive to birds from the area surrounding the solar farm. Of course environmentalists are not too happy about these suggestions.

Another element of the problem here is that we have a few plants for what is known as thermal solar. These work by concentrating sun rays through arranging large mirrors in a circle; the heat then generates steam, which is used to produce electricity. But the problem is of course that this level of heat also can burn up a bird; it is even thought that birds are attracted to these thermal solar towers in much the same way that they would be attracted to the more familiar solar panels.

To put this all in perspective, it is important to realize that many other human-generated activities kill large numbers of birds. In fact, Argonne National Laboratory in the U.S. estimated that between 38,000 and 139,000 birds per year are killed through solar energy facilities here. But a 2013 study estimated that cats kill at least 1.3 billion birds annually.

Others point out that crashed into buildings, especially those with shiny surfaces, collisions with cars, and construction all kill significant quantities of birds. Many experts believe these numbers are much more significant than the toll of solar energy facilities on birds.

Since this is a community development website, we want to say one more thing that is specific to the U.S. but also applies in many other parts of the world. Part of our huge demand for energy is occurring because we cannot come to terms with our need to adopt (or re-adopt!) a settlement pattern where we live close together instead of far apart, thus generating much greater demand for fossil fuels.

Like all environmental questions, this one is a matter of balance. How can we balance our desire for more energy to raise the quality of life for all peoples equitably, as compared to protect all forms of animal and plant life, so that we don't suffer unintended consequences?

Or more to your excellent point, how can we place appropriate emphasis on protecting birds from highly reflective surfaces, while still keeping the loss of bird life from solar energy production as compared to birds dying from house pets, collisions with buildings and cars, construction activities, and global warming?

Thanks for the great question.

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