Crispy or Original Recipe? Solar Power Test Fries Birds in Flight

Every time I think about “green energy,” a little voice in my head that sounds like Katharine McPhee starts singing “Over the Rainbow.”

(Sorry, Judy Garland fans, but this is the 21st century, and Kat’s got it all over the erstwhile Dorothy Gale.)

It’s not that I’m seeing Munchkins, but the wistful, dreamy, pie-in-the-sky yearning expressed in the song seems to me to capture the whole alternative energy movement.

Whether it’s corn-powered cars, high-tech windmills or solar panels, the stuff doesn’t work — or at least not as well as advertised.

Take, once again, the case of the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, aka the Death Star in the Desert.

There are apparently a few of these solar power plants that have been built in the middle of nowhere along and near the Southern California-Nevada border.

At first blush, they sound like a nifty idea: Array hundreds of mirrors in a circle, set them to reflect sunlight onto a collector tower where the combined heat turns salt to molten liquid, then use that to create steam and drive power turbines.

First problem: The regularity of weather required to make such a facility even remotely feasible almost demands a location out in the desert. This makes staffing difficult, because who wants to commute a hundred miles to work, then not even be able to go to a Jack in the Box for lunch?

Second problem: The distance from civilization creates huge problems for transmitting whatever power is generated. No wire, however insulated, is a perfect conductor, and the farther the electricity has to travel, the more juice gets wasted.

Third problem: The vagaries of solar power collecting require vast tracts of land to build the mirror farm on. Even in the desert, this often means taking up sensitive wilderness areas.

Fourth problem: Oh yeah, there’s this little thing about making birds explode.

Really.

The solar energy reflected and focused by the mirror farm at Crescent Dunes and other similar facilities is powerful enough that anything caught in the path vaporizes. Birds, including endangered species, aren’t clear on the concept of “dangerous solar death ray,” so they have a tendency to get quick-roasted. It’s a common occurrence, and workers have dubbed these birds “streamers” because of the trails of smoke and flame they create.

On a recent two-hour test conducted in January, more than 130 birds were killed or injured. Allowing for an average working time of about 12 hours a day year-round, the plant could potentially wipe out approximately 285,000 birds per year at that rate. And that test was only of about one-third of the plant’s capacity.

There’s another facility in the Mojave Desert, called the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, that is 15 times the size of the Crescent Dunes facility. Even if the actual average rate of bird incinerations is much lower than during the recent test, these facilities could still put a serious dent in California’s ecosystem.

While I’m sure the energy plant is “green” in that somebody is making a lot of money from it, environmentally friendly it is not.