Letter from California: Going 'green' can really cook your bird

California may believe it holds the key to all the answers when it comes to going ‘green.’ Green, believed by many in the state, to be the optimum goal of achieving harmony with Mother Earth.


California, however, is finding out that some of its creatures aren’t fairing so well with the state’s environmentally friendly ideology.

California has undertaken a major solar power paneling project in the Mojave Desert, seemingly to tap into a possible replacement for the more expensive and environmentally ‘unfriendly’, natural gas.

In an area once freely roamed by tortoises and coyotes, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, owned by NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc., and BrightSource Energy, erected hundreds of thousands of mirrors on approximately 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, making its project the largest solar power plant of its kind in the world.

The $2.2 billion plant with three generating units opened earlier this year in February.

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation Facility (Courtesy BrightSource Energy)
Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation Facility (Courtesy BrightSource Energy)

The power plant’s debut came after years of legal battles regarding the tortoises and the impact it would have on the milkweed plant and other plant life in the area. Got to love those lawsuits.

Once the pats on the backs of executives were handed out, the solar power plant began producing nearly 400 megawatts of energy, which is roughly enough energy for 140,000 homes. According to the US Census Bureau figures, the population in California in 2013 was 38,332,521. The energy produced seems like a small drop in a big bucket.


That being said, the Ivanpah project, having been so careful in relocating tortoises and protecting plants, now has another problem on its hands which is sure to upset the environmentalists.

It has been discovered that the mirrors are ‘frying’ California’s birds. When the birds fly over, some catch on fire and perish while others collide with the mirrors. Not good PR in anyone’s book.

If you look at statistics, however, more birds are killed each year by flying into windows of buildings than die flying over the panels. So, I don’t believe this should be a reason to abandon the building of solar power plants, altogether.

Others aren’t so convinced about the benefits of the Ivanpah project.

Michael J. Connor, Director of the Western Watersheds Project is suing the federal agencies that reviewed the Ivanpah project. He believes that alternatives to the site weren’t taken into consideration and that serious environmental impacts, including the harm to the tortoise population were ultimately ignored.

Perhaps the ‘ever’ green California will choose to overlook the victims of their project due to the Energy Department statistics which indicate that the solar industry employs more than 140,000 people, with employment increasing nearly 20 percent since the fall of 2012.

It appears that killing birds isn’t the only headache for the Ivanpah project.


Apparently, in order for a solar powered project to work, you need to have enough sun. Who knew?

You would think that the Golden State would have enough sun to power all of California and then some. Not so.

Ivanpah has petitioned the federal government to be allowed to burn more natural gas. Each of the three units use gas-fired boilers to warm up fluid in the turbines in the morning, to keep the fluid at the correct temperature during the night, and boost production during the day when the sun goes behind a cloud.

The companies that own the panels have asked the California Energy Commission (CEC) to amend the project’s license to allow Ivanpah to burn more than 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas per year. The operators of the plant promise that this amendment won’t have a negative environmental project. I can see the lawsuits being drafted now.

Good thing this plant is located in California and not Minnesota where recently an administrative judge for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, declared that a solar power plant was cost competitive to natural gas because it is cheaper than natural gas.

That judge is going to have a hard time explaining to Minnesota’s customers in December why they are having to pay for more natural gas since the solar power plant doesn’t work as well when the sun doesn’t shine precisely as needed.


While the Ivanpah project may have started out as a great idea, it isn’t living up to expectations, at least not in my opinion.

Bringing energy to a mere 140,000 homes when there are over 38 million people in California is simply not adequate to meet the needs of its residents.

It would take numerous projects and vast amounts of land to achieve the goal of making solar power a viable and replaceable option. This current strategy will erode California’s landscape.

Additionally, there is no ‘reduction’ in cost to Californians. If anything, additional costs are needed for installing solar paneling and other expenses connected with the operation of the facility.

No state, including California, has yet to find a way to ‘bottle the sun’ so that it achieves the desired goal 100 percent the time. Until such time as it does, perhaps California shouldn’t put all of its birds’ eggs in one basket; lest those get fried as well.

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