The Brightsoruce Power Plant, in California, uses mirrors to concentrate solar energy to nearly a single point, where things get so hot you can melt metal. Nearby, in the air, the concentrated solar energy can be so high that a bird flying by can become vaporized. It just turns into gas and dust. Poof.

Some estimates suggested that something like 28,000 birds would be killed per year in this plant. Other estimates suggest that over 4,000 of this type of plant would supply the US with pretty much all of its energy needs. So, this solution to global warming would come at the cost of 112,000,000 birds annually.

That’s actually not a lot of birds, when you consider that the normal background death rate for birds is over five billion in the US alone. Also, cats kill many more per year. Far more birds are killed running into windows. And so on.

But I never like the argument that “my horrible killing machine kills far fewer (birds/people/whatever) that existing horrible killing machines, so no big deal, right?” The right thing to do is to figure out how to kill fewer birds.

So, what to do?

Engineers working at Brightsolar have solved the problem. Here’s the thing. Most of the birds, possibly all, that were being vaporized were running into a ring of intense solar radiation that formed around the plant’s tower during standby periods. This is when the sun’s energy is not concentrated around the tower, but instead, in plain old air. So, the engineers changed the direction in which the sun’s energy was pointed during stand down, and ended up creating less of a concentration. Now, the concentrated sunlight at its maximum is hot but quite survivable. It is about the strength of four suns shining at once on one spot, which does not vaporize a bird flying through it.

The company’s Kevin Smith was quoted here as saying,

“We have had zero bird fatalities since we implemented this solution in January, despite being in the standby position as well as flux on the receiver for most days since then,” he said. “This change appears to have fully corrected the problem.”

Mischief managed.

For more information about this story, check out the following three sources:

An older post reporting on the problem and providing some context: “Birds die…

I don’t like that post much because it presents the specious argument that “my monster is just another monster” but it does provide numerous links to helpful information. And, truthfully, if we have to make a new monster to stop global warming, then that is what we have to do.

Then we have: (Fewer to no) Birds Die (from solar flux), in which the monster is contained

The source information is from “One weird trick prevents bird deaths at solar tower power plants.” I love the title of that post. I wonder if that “one weird trick” trick is really effective at getting clicks. And, even more importantly because it may speak to the nature of human psychology, why???

Written by Greg
Greg Laden has been watching birds since they were still dinosaurs, but has remained the consummate amateur. This is probably because he needs better binoculars. Based in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, Greg is a biological anthropologist and Africanist, who writes and teaches about Evolution, especially of humans. He also blogs at Greg's beat is Bird Evolutionary Biology. One could say that knowing the science of birds can make the birds more interesting. But really, knowing about the birds that go with the science is more likely to make the science more interesting. And thus, birding and Neo Darwinian Theory go hand in hand. Darwin was, after all, a pretty serious birder. Greg has seen a bird eat a monkey in the wild.