The rarely discussed downside to renewable energy

Irony alert: An energy-producing technology designed to better the environment might actually be doing the environment more harm than good.

A giant solar power project that officially opened last week in the California desert is the first of its kind — and it may be the last.

The solar farm features wide stretches of mirrors that reflect sunlight onto towers that contain water, causing the water to boil and producing steam to drive power generators.

 

 

The problem with this technology isn’t its effectiveness at producing energy — the farm can generate power for 140,000 households — but rather its effectiveness at roasting birds that are unfortunate enough to fly through the intense heat surrounding the towers, which can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Talk about overdone.

What I can’t understand is that regulators said they anticipated that some birds would be killed, yet they OK’d the project anyways.

Now those very same regulators claim that they didn’t expect “so many” to be killed, which translates into “so many that it would be an issue.”

The question becomes: What becomes of the solar farm?

State and federal regulators will take the “wait and see” approach, deciding to conduct a two-year study of the facility’s effects on birds.

What exactly they hope to learn from this study, I can only speculate. I doubt the true purpose of this study is to study the effect on birds because based on the burnt-crisp evidence, I think it’s safe to say we know the effect it has on them.

My guess as to the true motive of this study is that too much has been already invested into this project ($2.2 billion), and neither state nor federal officials are ready to admit such a huge loss just because of a few dead birds. The two-year study is just a means to buy more time, enough time to let this bird massacre controversy subside.

On a larger scale, this ordeal is yet another example of ineffective oversight. Yes, there was oversight on this project. The so-called regulators “anticipated” that a few birds might die, but obviously it proved ineffective.

No matter your political affiliation, eco-friendly renewable energy is a cause you should support, and for good reason. It is meant to preserve the very world we live in. However, what gets lost in all this support is the fact that most renewable energy technology tends to be much more costly than traditional energy means, and can often produce adverse, inadvertent consequences, this bird massacre fiasco being just one of them.

I support the research and development of renewable energy but also admit that many of these technologies are new and under-researched. This solar farm was the first of its kind, and anything that is the first of its kind will produce its share of side effects.

That’s why scientists are supposed to perform closed-off studies to hopefully discover what these side effects are, so that when the project goes full-scale, problems like too many bird deaths do not occur.

I don’t doubt that this type of prior research took place, but the fact that the project went through anyway and still produced an unacceptable consequence goes to show that current renewable energy development is outpacing research.

The Obama administration expects results from the many tax dollars it invests in renewable energy, and such expectations put extreme pressure on the companies overseeing these projects to focus solely on creating the product that works, instead of the product that works without any harmful side effects like killing “too many” birds.

What we need to do is take a more careful, deliberate approach in producing renewable energy technologies, so that when those technologies are ready for production, they will be, well, renewable.

Reach the columnist at jjmah@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @jonathanmah