If the owners of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System assumed the plant's formal opening last week would generate a wave of positive press, they're certainly regretting their assumption this week.
Though the ribbon-cutting on February 13 did prompt some uncritical praise from a few sectors, the overwhelming response from mainstream press around the world focused attention on an issue ReWire's been covering almost since we started up in 2012: the risk to birds and other wildlife from the project's concentrated solar radiation.
The project, which formally went online Thursday after three years of construction, uses more than 170,000 mirrored heliostats to focus sunlight on boilers atop three 459-foot towers. As we've written extensively in past months, the concentration of "solar flux" creates extremely high air temperatures near the towers. Those superheated zones around each tower may pose serious risk to birds and other wildlife that fly through them, and it looks as though the world press is taking notice.
The bad news for Ivanpah's owners kicked into full swing just as Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz cut the ribbon on the plant, with a feature article by reporter Cassandra Sweet in the Wall Street Journal entitled "The $2.2 Billion Bird-Scorching Solar Project." The article's subhead underscored the message in the piece: "At California's Ivanpah Plant, Mirrors Produce Heat and Electricity -- And Kill Wildlife."
In the piece, Sweet mentions the reportedly high cost ratepayers will be paying Southern California Edison's and Pacific Gas & Electric for power from Ivanpah, though neither the utilities nor Ivanpah's owners will release the precise figures to the public. Then, the obligatory financials out of the way, she gets to the main part of the story:
[T]he BrightSource system appears to be scorching birds that fly through the intense heat surrounding the towers, which can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The company, which is based in Oakland, Calif., reported finding dozens of dead birds at the Ivanpah plant over the past several months, while workers were testing the plant before it started operating in December. Some of the dead birds appeared to have singed or burned feathers, according to federal biologists and documents filed with the state Energy Commission.
BrightSource Energy, the plant's designer, now co-owns the project with NRG Energy and Google.
Sweet also spends some time detailing another long-time ReWire topic, the so-called "lake effect" in which solar facilities may lure water birds to attempt landings on mirrors and solar panels, causing collision injuries and deaths. ReWire broke that story last July. She closes by mentioning industry trends toward smaller, distributed generation projects and rooftop solar.
The same day as Sweet's Wall Street Journal piece appeared, the New York Times hit that last issue hard in an article entitled "A Huge Solar Plant Opens, Facing Doubts About Its Future." Reporters Diane Cardwell and Matthew Wald pulled no punches in the piece's opening paragraphs:
The plant, which took almost four years and thousands of workers assembling millions of parts to complete, officially opened on Thursday, the first electric generator of its kind. It could also be the last.
The Times piece didn't mention wildlife issues, and a similar Reuters piece entitled "California solar plant greeted with fanfare, doubts about future" mentioned wildlife issues in passing.
But following the Wall Street Journal's lead, many other global news outlets put the wildlife issue front and center, often with the same BrightSource photos of birds burned at Ivanpah that ReWire reported on in September of 2013.
Domestic news sources across the country ran some or all of a February 13 Associated Press piece, readable here at the San Jose Mercury News site, that said:
"Government documents show dozens of dead birds from sparrows to hawks have been found on the site, some with melted feathers. The suspected causes of death include collisions with mirrors and scorching. In November alone, 11 dead birds were found, including two, a blackbird and a warbler, with singed feathers."
In the U.K., The Independent's Adam Withnall led with the birds in his Sunday piece "California opens world's largest solar power farm -- as evidence emerges that it leaves birds who fly over 'scorched,'" writing "Environmentalists in California face a difficult dilemma after it emerged that a brand new solar power plant could actually be scorching to death some birds that fly over it." Withnall also mentioned the project's displacement of tortoises and desert kit foxes.
The Australian news site news.com.au published a story Tuesday with the unambiguous title "World's biggest solar plant is scorching and killing birds."
The usually tech-happy Gizmodo site Sploid published a short piece featuring those BrightSource bird photos, in which writer Jesus Diaz described the plant's flux output as a "death ray."
The Daily Mail, never to be outdone in the clickbait headline department, offered up a Saturday piece entitled "Horror at the world's largest solar farm days after it opens as it is revealed panels are SCORCHING birds that fly over them." (Caps in original.) The Mail's article is actually rather well-written, but we admit its headline did have us briefly wondering whether the satirical Weekly World News would follow up with a piece on Ivanpah's solar flux threat to Bat Boy.
Speaking of which, Fox News also entered the fray on Saturday, with a piece bearing the title "World's largest solar plant scorching birds in Nevada desert." As of this writing three days later, Fox News hasn't yet corrected the headline, which places the project in the wrong state.
As is likely the case with Fox News, much of the coverage of wildlife issues seems to come from outlets that generally don't give much play to wildlife. It's reasonable to speculate that some conservative outlets are using the bird deaths issue as a convenient cudgel with which to beat renewable energy policy.
And that ideological bias extends in more than one direction. Witness this short post on the website of Greenpeace USA, which at one point in its history was a wildlife protection group. The blog post lauds Ivanpah's ribbon-cutting with absolutely no mention of wildlife issues.
To be fair, Greenpeace USA has been AWOL on the issue of utility-scale renewable energy since the issue started heating up in 2007, so the organization may need time to come up to speed on the topic. That's not something you can say for GigaOm reporter Katie Fehrenbacher, who's been following the renewables industry for years and yet crafted this piece on the ribbon-cutting, in which she dismissively refers to the hundreds of tortoises displaced by the project as a "handful," and which mentions the issue of solar flux and wildlife not once. That's despite Fehrenbacher's use of the "magnifying glass and ant" metaphor to describe how BrightSource's design works.
Regardless of how individual press outlets reached their decisions on whether to include mention of solar flux wildlife injuries, it's strange and more than a little gratifying to see a story we broke here at ReWire grow wings and go worldwide.
That said, it's likely some of the non-wildlife-related coverage in the wake of Ivanpah's ribboncutting that stings the plant's owners the hardest. A story published Tuesday morning in Business Insider, Rob Wile provides likely the best example of the coverage that stands to have the most impact in the long run on Ivanpah's owners, and on the solar thermal industry in general. Wile echoes the New York Times piece in talking about the fiscal realities putting a damper on new solar thermal projects. He points out that if the Ivanpah plant turns a profit and pays off its investors, it'll be because ratepayers are locked into more expensive power from the plant for the next 20 years. He mentions that solar photovoltaic panels have seriously undercut the financing prospects for solar thermal in general, especially for experimental technologies like that used at Ivanpah.
It's an interesting story, marred only slightly by Wile's joining Fox News in the Geographical Error Club: he places the project in Death Valley, about 65 miles west at its closest point.
But what's really going to sting is Wile's title: "California's Record-Breaking New Solar Plant Is Already Irrelevant."