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June 2012
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FRYING HIGH Solar plant has bad habit of igniting passing birds

President Obama, along with many in the environmentalist camp, has an idyllic concept of the energy future - one where energy comes from non-polluting, renewable sources such as wind and solar farms. One thing neither the president nor his environmentalist friends seem to have counted on is that such a future would be one with a lot fewer birds, particularly protected ones such as bald and golden eagles.

Last year an Associated Press investigation found that the giant wind turbines springing up around the nation appear to be particularly tough on eagles. A wind farm in the Altamont Pass area of northern California, for instance, was found to be killing 60 eagles a year.

The AP and other media also reported a disparity in federal protection efforts, noting that conventional power plants and other industries found to be harming protected wildlife faced frequent government prosecution and fines, while regulators turned a blind eye to wind farm bird kills.

In the wake of those reports, perhaps to show just how fair it is, the government went after Duke Energy over eagle kills at its two wind farms in Converse County, Wyo., and extracted a $1 million penalty.

That in turn set off a hue and cry from the wind power industry, which warned such legal consequences would discourage private investment in wind energy. So in December the Obama administration adopted a new rule that allows wind farms 30-year exemptions from penalties for killing or hurting protected eagles.

In typical Obama administration fashion, the new regulation was classified as an "administrative change" and as such was not subject to a full environmental review. That doubly angered the save-the-birds camp. As the former head of the American Bird Conservancy put it: "The federal government didn't study the impacts of this rule change even though the (law) requires it. Instead the feds have decided to break the law and use eagles as lab rats."

But the bad news for birds doesn't end there. A Wall Street Journal article this week details the discovery of a new problem at the $2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, a joint venture of NRG Energy, BrightSource Energy, and Google, which is backed by a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee and hefty tax credits. Apparently the new plant's 350,000 mirrors and three 40-story boiler towers are frying birds right out of the California sky. Regulators say the casualties so far include a peregrine falcon, a grebe, two hawks, four nighthawks, and various warblers and sparrows. Regulators observed that some of the birds "appeared to have singed or burned feathers." Temperatures around the towers, it was noted, can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Regulators were surprised by the extent of the bird deaths from the plant, which is still in testing, and The Wall Street Journal article says that is one reason the first-of-its-kind Ivanpah project may also be one of the last.

Another reason, says the WSJ, is the economics of the project. Ivanpah cost about four times what a conventional gas-fired plant would cost to build, yet produces far less electricity. Experts predict customers of the plant's electricity will pay double what they would for conventional power.

So much like Obamacare, while the solar power idea appeals to many people conceptually, attitudes are likely to change once people get the actual bill. And their attitudes aren't likely to get any better should they happen to be bird-lovers.

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