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Ivanpah the Bug Killer

If you’ve heard of Ivanpah, you’ve heard of “streamers” – birds set aflame in flight, raining fire from the sky with regularity, at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station in California..

Well, a newly published peer-reviewed study indirectly suggests the plant might have gotten a bum rap with all that talk.

The widely accepted view of Ivanpah as a massive bird incinerator has its origins at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. Staff from the lab, as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement personnel, visited Ivanpah for a few days in October 2013 and wrote of seeing “streams of smoke rise when an object crosses the solar flux fields aimed at the tower.”

Fried birds, they presumed.

When told by Ivanpah employees that many of the streamers weren’t birds but were instead insects or debris, the feds weren’t completely dismissive, but they sounded skeptical. After all, they wrote, “there were instances in which the amount of smoke produced by the ignition could only be explained by a larger flammable biomass such as a bird.” Plus, they has “observed birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently becoming a streamer.”

Eventually, their observation of seeing “a streamer event every minute or two,” became the incendiary lead to an Associated Press story about Ivanpah and birds.

But it turns out more streamers than they thought might not be birds.

In May and September of 2014, a team from the U.S. Geological Survey conducted research at Ivanpah into ways of “detecting animals flying around solar power towers.” To do so, among other things they set up sophisticated video cameras and radar equipment and conducted hundreds of hours of surveillance.

Their equipment captured a lot things flying around the towers, and after looking at all the images and videos they made some observations:

  1. “Puffs of smoke and other flashing objects moving in and through the flux around solar towers can be visually confusing.”
  2. “In general, the smoke created by a burning object can make it appear larger and more dynamic, and this was particularly true in the solar flux around solar towers.”
  3. “Billowing, brightly illuminated smoke moving through the flux around solar towers sometimes created the illusion of birds in flight.”
  4. “Further complicating matters, occasionally birds could be seen flying high above the tower and were visible only as small white objects in the background, while similarly small-looking objects (presumably insects) simultaneously burned and smoked in the visual foreground.”
  5. “Sometimes the visual trails of these distant birds and those of closer, smoking objects intersected and created the illusion of the birds disappearing in smoke. However, we never observed evidence indicating that birds were completely incinerated by the solar flux.”
  6. “Our collective observations indicate that most of the small objects observed smoking in the flux were insects.”

Now, this doesn’t prove that Ivanpah isn’t a threat to birds (and it says nothing about the plant’s impact on desert tortoises, or the worthiness of its technology). Birds are killed at the plant, although not in nearly the numbers some had projected. But it is a reminder of the power of provocative language and images to overwhelm a complex risk-benefit question.