Workers at a state-of-the-art solar plant in California have a name for birds that fly through the plant's concentrated sun rays – ‘streamers’. It's on account of the smoke plumes emitting from their burning bodies.
Federal wildlife investigators who visited the BrightSource Energy site in the Mojave Dessert reported an average of one ‘streamer’ every two minutes, and they are now urging Californian officials to halt the operator's application to build an even larger plant.
The current plant, which opened in February at a cost of $2.2 billion (£1.32bn), is said to be the world's biggest power station to employ so-called power towers.
More than 300,000 mirrors, each one the size of a garage door, reflect solar rays on to three 40-storey boiler towers. The water inside these towers heats up to produce steam, which turns turbines that generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes.
But wildlife experts say the set-up might act as a ‘mega-trap’ for wildlife, with the bright light of the plant attracting insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds that fly to their death in the intensely focused light rays.
The issue is likely to affect BrightSource's application to build a 75-storey power tower that would soar above the sand dunes and creeks between Joshua Tree National Park and the California-Arizona border.
The site of the proposed plant sits on an avian flight path between the Colorado River and California's largest lake, the Salton Sea.
While biologists say there is no known feasible way to curb the number of birds being killed, BrightSource say they are hoping to find one.
The company – of which Google is a backer – is offering $1.8 million (£1m) in compensation for anticipated bird deaths at the new site. The company says it would use the money to spay and neuter US domestic cats, which kill over 1.4 billion birds a year. Opponents say that would do nothing to help the desert birds at the proposed site.
Power-tower proponents are fighting to keep the deaths from forcing a pause in the building of new plants which could make electricity more affordable, more accessible and less damaging to the wider environment.
"Diversity of technology is critical," says Thomas Conroy, a renewable-energy expert.
"Nobody should be arguing let's be all coal, all solar, all wind, or all nuclear. And every one of those technologies has a long list of pros and cons."
Picture credit: BrightSource Energy