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Commentary — Pity the poor streamers

Every day, birds flying near a certain spot on the California-Nevada border are incinerated in midair. They’re called “streamers” for the puff of smoke that appears as they ignite and plummet to the ground. Federal wildlife investigators estimate there’s one “streamer” every two minutes.

What’s causing this?

The birds are falling victim to a massive solar energy installation in California’s Mojave Desert. Launched last year, the $2.2 billion facility is the world’s largest plant to employ power towers. It sits on 4,000 acres of public land that is home to the threatened desert tortoise.

More than 300,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, reflect solar rays onto three 460-foot towers.  The water inside the towers is heated to produce steam, which powers turbines that generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes.

The reflected sun rays are bright enough to interfere with commercial airliners flying between Las Vegas and Los Angeles — and powerful enough to heat the air around the towers to a temperature of 800 degrees, incinerating birds in midair.

Experts think the light generated by the solar array attracts butterflies and other insects, which in turn attract the birds. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates the annual death toll as high as 28,000 birds. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say the power-tower style of solar technology holds “the highest lethality potential” of all the solar projects being developed in California.

Nevertheless, the facility’s developer, BrightSource Energy, is seeking permission to build another power-tower solar installation with a 75-story tower between Joshua Tree National Park and the California-Arizona border. The location is in the flight path of protected golden eagles and peregrine falcons and is home to more than 100 other species of birds.  

The Audubon Society says that, before granting any new permits, officials should track bird kills for a full year, including during the annual migration. But California Gov. Jerry Brown is resisting calls to slow or stop development of the power-tower solar installations.  

There appears to be a double standard when it comes to the environmental impacts of renewable power.

Massive solar farms encroach on thousands of acres of habitat for the threatened desert tortoise, yet the installations are allowed to go forward — assisted by billions in taxpayer loan guarantees.  

In contrast, the Bureau of Land Management cordoned off 400,000 acres from energy development in Utah and Colorado in anticipation of a listing to preserve the Gunnison sage grouse.

Wind turbine blades rip through federally protected golden and bald eagles and other raptors, but rather than fine the industry, the Obama administration quietly expanded their permits. 

Meanwhile, in Alaska, the Interior Department prohibited a remote fishing village from building a gravel road, saying it would affect eelgrass that serves as a way-stop meal for migratory birds. Village spokesperson Della Trumble noted, “We’d have much less impact on the birds with our road than these wind farms have on the eagles.”

Yes, we need renewable energy.  But we also need oil, natural gas — and yes, coal — if we are to meet future energy demands. And they should all play by the same rules.

Here’s an idea:  Rather than spend billions of taxpayer dollars trying to regulate the coal industry out of business, use some of that money to support development of zero-emission coal plants like China is doing with its GreenGen project.  

Rather than use the bureaucracy to strangle the Keystone Pipeline, let it be built. We could use the jobs and the economic boost it will bring. The same goes for biomass and natural gas.

Double standards for energy and turning a blind eye to solar and wind turbine kills are no longer acceptable.


• Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells [at] msn [dot] com.


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