Endangered bird found dead at desert solar plant

July 17th, 2013 · by Garrison Frost


A Riverside solar power plant in May reported that an endangered Yuma Clapper Rail was found dead at its Desert Sunlight solar facility near Joshua Tree National Park in Riverside County. Audubon California takes this very seriously and will be working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to determine exactly what happened (photo by USFWS)

Categories: Alternative energy · Audubon California · Endangered Species Act

8 Comments so far ↓

  • Hello,

    If you read the KCET article you’ll find a BILLION birds are dying annually from collisions with windows and other urban features.
    Its appropriate to be upset about additional mortalities from desert solar facilities, as long as your ire is within the context of the bigger picture.
    Many times the number of birds migrate along the coast than over the desert. How many birds are already crashing into California rooftop solar installations and going un-noticed?

  • roadrunner

    Looks like the Audubon Society really wants to invent utility scale renewable energy that is bird safe, but there are still no wind turbines safe for birds. And they ENDORSED the East Riverside Solar Energy Zone. That is 149,000 acres of public land, largely in in the Chuckwalla Valley and near Blythe, California recently approved for massive solar development by the feds. These are the areas that would be covered by these artificial lakes. These are areas where the Yuma clapper rail, great blue herons, brown pelicans, ducks and a host of other water birds will get confused by that lake effect. So if Audubon is worried about more clapper rails getting killed, why did they support turning 149,000 acres of bird flyway into a series of false lakes that these birds very well may collide with? You know there is absolutely no mitigation that is known for this? Placing white rims around each panel has been shown to discourage aquatic insects (Hovartz), but what about endangered birds?

  • roadrunner

    Rooftop solar works far better than these utility scale boondoggles propped up by tax breaks and subsidy. Have you seen the carbon footprint that it takes to build a remote solar plant? 200 cars a day commuting to build the Ivanpah boondoggle. Germany has installed 22 GW of renewable energy and 80 percent of that is on the roof. The water effect is very small from rooftop panels and would not be as visible to birds as a 4,600 acre PV farm. The Chuckwalla Valley is an important movement path for water birds between the Colorado River, Salton Sea and Gulf of California. Covering the whole area with solar as a result of incompetence from the federal government will most likely reduce populations. The BLM and all of the agencies just approved first, thought about all the problems later. The people who try to say this is OK because birds are getting killed by climate change anyway are throwing that baby out with the bathwater and really don’t have much in the way of cranial capacity. What a stupid concept to sacrifice wildlife to save the climate. We never needed to have that stupid debate. There is far more room on US rooftops and far less power lost in transmission travel. And the desert is beautiful and that is reason alone to tell these big solar scammers to take a hike. But it is far more than visual resources that are at stake. Plus, we don’t even know if the Ivanpah Project is even going to work! One point six billion tax dollars wasted on a DOE loan? Probably. Stay tuned…

  • Shaun

    Missed the point: is this your definition of environmentalism, sustainability and progress?:

    “Going from worse to bad is still an improvement.”

    How does this acceptance of increased mortality and habitat destruction reconcile with the need to do all we can to give wildlife a fighting chance to stay resilient in the face of climate change? Even if we converted our grid to 100% renewables overnight, climate change will persist for decades. We must have higher standards for our renewable energy future because 1.) our ecosystems cannot bear much more human-induced burden and 2.) we will live with the renewable energy path we choose for quite some time. Rooftop solar leasing, and projects on already-disturbed lands have already shown that this higher standard is economical and feasible. If the standard we hold is to accept “bad” improvement, then we are no better than the corporations and government decisionmakers that try to label the status quo as progress. By your definition, we should be okay with natural gas, or clean coal, as well.

    The crisis of climate change demends truly sustainable energy solutions, not stop-gap measures that will force us to live with another form of ecological destruction for at least another generation or two.

    Regarding the “lake effect” that is confusing birds, we will have to find solutions that can fix the appearance of any solar panel, whether it is on a rooftop, on disturbed lands, or built on once-pristine desert. But in the case of Desert Sunlight Solar project where this bird died, we are converting intact habitat into an industrial zone. It doesn’t matter if it is a solar facility, toy manufacturer, gold mine, or coal plant – climate change demands that we give wildlife more room to adapt and maintain resilience. We cannot give the renewable energy industry a free pass to destroy habitat.

    We have to 1.) take immediate individual action to reduce our dependence on the grid through energy efficiency improvements, and 2.) demand true change from our elected officials in the way we receive energy. We should have more choice in our energy purchases, including communite choice aggregation of solar on already-disturbed lands, property assessed clean energy programs to finance rooftop solar, and feed-in-tariffs to pay urban clean energy generators.

    Destroying wildlands and turning a blind eye to the death of endangered wildlife, like this Yuma clapper rail, is a bad precedent to set so early on in what will be a long struggle to fix the way we receive energy.

    We do not have to live with projects like the Desert Sunlight solar farm where this Yuma clapper rail died.

  • Missed the point

    Sarah – For clarification, the point being made in my comment is that we can’t just cry foul when the environment or wildlife is affected by human activity. We have to figure out why, how, and what can be done to reduce that impact.

    The reality I spoke of is that we as a people have a thirst, if not a need, for energy. In that, I would argue that we don’t have a choice. Where that energy comes from and how we manufacture it, we have both a choice and an obligation to make that choice the best possible. If we feel that ‘Solar Project X’ was constructed irresponsibly, then we need to do something about it, find solutions, put our waders on and slog through the politics if possible. That doesn’t mean that all solar projects are bad. Even if they were, they’re still better than what we had before. Going from worse to bad is still an improvement. It’s recognizing where we’ve done well and what we need to improve upon, and more importantly, making practical suggestions for the future.

    You talk about Audubon sitting meekly at the table without the courage to speak up or make change. The reason that they’re sitting at the table at all is because they’ve learned they can be more effective if they’re sitting at the table, guiding the process than they can from the outside. To wit, how many ‘behind closed doors’ meetings do you think Greenpeace gets invited to? No one could say they lack courage, but you can’t win the game if you’re only cheering loudly from the stands.

    I completely agree that rooftop solar would be a great solution; use the existing infrastructure rather than leveling pristine sites. But again, if Audubon were to be championing solar in the city, the companies building plants in the desert won’t come calling to Audubon to endorse their project, making them less effective than they are now.

    Lastly, I am in no way lecturing people to keep their mouths shut about these issues. I’m saying come up with something better than “solar panels don’t belong in the desert” just because it’s “beautiful”. Don’t you realize who you’re up against? Those pleas don’t mean a thing to multi-million dollar companies nor the politicians whose campaigns they’ve funded. Construct a decent argument based on sound science and economic incentive, send letters to your elected officials and conservation organizations and for the love of all that is good in this country, if you don’t like the job being done by your (senator, congressman, councilor, etc.) don’t re-elect them. The only thing that matters to politicians is their job, which means your vote. If you tell them that they won’t be getting your vote, nor the vote of all your petition signing friends, unless (insert issue here), you might be surprised how they change their tune about that topic.

    As for your challenge – I have neither the interest nor the vanity to put my comments about comments about a mediocre article on a blog. There’s enough drivel out there already.

  • Sarah Bellum

    “Wag our fingers?” “Accepting the reality of our conveniences and knowing where our energy comes from?” Really?

    How about the realities of how Audubon has been taking the lead for far too long in embracing the corporate stance to wildlife protection, in other words, say yes to everything ever deemed “alternative’, give lip service to their deep concern about birds, scratch their chins in consternation while meantime exchanging more than hand shakes behind closed doors with the likes of Iberdrola, Pattern Energy, and (fill in the blank with the most powerful, and least committed to environmental protections, energy companies here)?

    The ‘realities’ of energy are that Audubon should be in the forefront pushing for rooftop solar over industrial solar, for instance. They should be first in line to tell BLM and USFWS that we need MANDATORY guidelines and stricter rules about where Big Energy gets to lease our public lands, and yelling from the mountain tops when wind farms are inappropriately sited. But instead you are lecturing concerned citizens on how to be silent when it comes to being necessary watchdogs over corporate capitalism run amuck, even when we get tiny glimpses of the cost in the form of bird deaths like this rail, which is as we know the tip of an iceberg that need not melt if we are smart and courageous about the new era of energy production. Where is the leadership? For shame.

    I was once told by the head of Audubon California that the radar used by wind farms – to instigate curtailment – will change the face of alternative energy to be one that prevents bird deaths far and wide. So why isn’t it working? Perhaps because the companies don’t use the radar, don’t care, aren’t required to use it by the agencies thanks to a complete lack of enforcement via voluntary guidelines from USFWS endorsed by National Audubon?

    And why are our choices always the black and white parochial argument: industrial solar and wind farms, or coal mines and bleak devastation, and that’s it?

    Whatever happened campaigns embracing the whole energy reality, one that includes reduced consumption and switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet to reduce climate change? How about assisting entities in fossil fuel divestment, instead of paving the way for corrupt corporations to do energy however they like, as long as it isn’t coal?

    And heavens, forget rooftop solar, it may be practical, economical, and environmentally the most sound option, avoids wiping out miles of open space on public lands and doesn’t require thousands of miles of new power lines, but it sure doesn’t get Audubon a seat at the big boys’ corporate picnic table. So let’s keep quiet about that too, and just harrumph a lot when more rails, condors, eagles, or say, several hundred thousand acres of big horned sheep critical habitat are eliminated to pave the way for renewable energy Not Done Right. Progress with Caution? How about progress with Courage? THAT is what Edward Abbey was all about.

    Impress me, and let this comment float on your blog. See what others have to say to my comment.

  • Progress with caution

    Kathy –

    Windmills kill birds from either direct collision or through the drastic change in pressure as a blade passes near (order of inches) them and no, it’s not acceptable. This instance was likely from the Rail mistaking the surface of the mirrors for a lake or wetland ( Its death possibly resulting from collision, exhaustion, overheating, etc.

    It’s so sad that new ideas for energy are suddenly put to the knife when they are found to impact the environment. The attraction of birds to these sites should and could have been anticipated, but obviously it takes real examples to provide context for new minimization of impact and mitigation strategies.

    What would you rather have providing electricity to your air conditioner in the beautiful desert – a brand new coal plant? Perhaps a clean burning natural gas plant, never mind that messy fracking job it takes to get it. You might be progressively thinking that nuclear has a chance at a comeback, yet it still has a darker side. Maybe you’ve gone “off the grid” installing solar panels on your roof, but as you said, they “do not belong in the desert”. I love the deserts of the Southwest as much as the next canyon rat or Edward Abbey, but being a responsible citizen means accepting the reality of our conveniences and knowing where our energy comes from, and at what cost to the environment.

    It is our duty and obligation to understand how and where we cause the negative effects we have on the environment and work to reduce them, not simply wag our fingers at progressive energy projects and proclaim beauty above all things.

  • Kathy

    I’ll be anxious to know what killed this poor bird. The wind turbines are killing many migratory birds, hawks, eagles and it all seems to be acceptable. I think the poor bird was either blinded from the reflection flying into them like they do with home windows or the heat from them. Solar panels do not belong in the desert where they destroy the homes of desert animals and the beauty of the desert. It’s so sad that this is being allowed to happen just because the government says it’s the way to go!!!!!!