SunSpecial: Death Rays   Leave a comment

Every day people use more and more electricity to power almost every activity of our lives, from lights and air conditioners to refrigerators and factories and even the gas pumps that put fuel in our cars; or the charging stations for hybrid autos. Yet while electricity seems easy to come by (just plug it in!), it’s really an expensive, difficult, and sometimes dangerous process to generate power from the source into the electricity we depend upon. Usually electricity originates from some sort of generator powered by water, or steam, or natural gas, or even using a little electricity to generate more electricity (all ways that are really old-school and often wasteful); but recently, solar – power from the sun – has become one of the go-to solutions for our energy needs. After all, the sun is always ‘on’, it doesn’t ask for anything in return, and once the solar collectors are built, it’s free! But while solar power might appear to be relatively free of expense, that doesn’t mean there’s no cost – and for birds in the California desert, the cost for our electrical needs might be their highest price of all.

At Ivanpah Dry Lake near the California-Nevada border is the world’s largest solar power plant built to test out a new technology called ‘power-towers’ (Not ‘Tower of Power’. That’s a popular 1970’s Blues band). In the desert about 30 miles south of Las Vegas have arisen three 40-story tall steel and concrete structures with super-size water boilers resting on top. Each tower is surrounded by over 100,000 mirrors, each about the size of a garage door – over 300,000 in total – that are angled to reflect and concentrate sun rays – named ‘solar flux’ – onto the boilers, which create steam and result in electricity. Which is fine in theory – the entire complex is estimated to be able to generate electrical needs for 140,000 homes – until the towers were fully activated a few months ago, and birds starting falling from the sky. Not in shock, or disoriented, or needing to rest, but burnt and blackened, feathers singed and unable to fly, most dead when they hit the ground. The ‘solar-flux’ created by the system (a name which itself sounds bit disturbing) are enough to scorch birds in mid-flight.

Almost every old science fiction movie featured someone with a ‘death ray’, a powerful, mysterious beam of energy that seemed impossible to stop until the hero found the off switch. But more than sci-fi, today a search for more energy has resulted in rays powerful enough to incinerate insects; temporarily blind pilots flying one of the most congested airways; distract drivers on a nearby highway and burn feathers and skin off birds. It’s not unknown that concentrated solar power can be very, very powerful – a solar experimental unit at Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico can burn through inches of metal, or even melt bricks (after all, this is a refection of the sun where surface temperatures are about 10 million degrees) – but no one suspected the ‘power towers’ would be dropping birds as they fly by, even though engineers did estimate temperatures as high as 1000 degrees could be produced.

“Behold, the power of the Sun!  Or three suns, that's even better!”

“Behold, the power of the Sun! Or three suns, that’s even better!”

But possibly what’s most concerning is this current project is only a test, and as power company representatives have pointed out since the towers were fully activated in February ‘only’ about a thousand birds have been killed. They go on to remind us that house cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year and the companies have even offered to establish a fund to study and help prevent bird deaths at the hands – or paws and teeth – of loose cats. But environmental groups and the US Fish and Wildlife Service state this won’t help birds in the path of the solar towers – which already have claimed raptors, water birds, and a variety of warblers and sparrows. What’s most troubling is the actual proposed ‘production’ facility is planned to include a ‘power tower’ 750 feet tall – about 70 stories, equal in height to some of the tallest buildings in New York City – and will be built on land near Joshua Tree National Park, bordering a flyway where millions of birds, including threatened and endangered species, travel each year to and from the Salton Sea, one of the most significant inland nesting sites in California.

But to meet current and future energy needs, all this is worth it, right? And certainly better than pollution-filled coal or depleting natural gas supplies or the dangers of nuclear? (Pick one: Dead birds or mutated radioactive monsters). At 2.2 million dollars, the Ivanpah plant actually costs more to operate than the energy it produces, and the planned ‘super tower’ is estimated to cost over 5 million dollars just in construction, not to mention operation expenses. The power companies state that excess costs will simply be passed on to consumers. US Fish and Wildlife research show that not 1000, but 28,000 birds have been killed by ‘solar flux’ in the past few months with the potential of millions of deaths if the Joshua Tree location is built. Every day airline pilots are reporting glare from the towers is preventing them from seeing other aircraft or hazards, and local Native American groups say the towers, and wildlife deaths, are causing spiritual damage to the land.

In today’s world easy, convenient, always-ready electricity is a necessity – but also a responsibility. Not in the sci-fi future, but in our everyday lives each one of us holds the power of the death ray in our hands – but, like the hero, we also know the location of the ‘off’ button.

Posted August 24, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SunSpecial

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