Engineering marvel, but at what cost?

Engineering marvel, but at what cost?
MIRROR-BASED SYSTEM: The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System consists of over 300,000 mirrors.

It is so hot that birds flying above it are believed to have been scorched to death.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System spans 13 sq km in the Mojave Desert, near the California-Nevada border, and it officially opened last month despite strong objections from wildlife activists.

The US$2.2 billion (S$2.8 billion) solar plant, the world's largest, has more than 300,000 mirrors that reflect sunlight onto boilers housed at the top of three towers, each of which is 45m taller than the Statue of Liberty.

New York City's iconic statue is about 46m from its base to the torch.

The sunlight hitting the towers can create temperatures of up to 530 deg C, producing steam that drives generator turbines. From a distance, the mirrors - known as heliostats - look like a pristine lake rising from the desert.

Ivanpah, about four times larger than New York City's Central Park, is so big that it can even be seen from the International Space Station, orbiting some 360km above the Earth. Although it has the potential to provide green energy to 140,000 homes, it has been criticised for disrupting a thriving habitat for tortoises, coyotes, kit foxes and bobcats, UK daily The Independent reported.

While measures have been taken to protect these animals - including a fence around the perimeter of the plant - evidence has surfaced which suggests a worrying hazard produced by the plant's extreme heat.

DEAD BIRDS

Biologists producing compliance reports for Ivanpah's developer, Bright- Source Energy, said that at least two dead birds found on the site in November last year were likely to be killed by "scorching".

They provided images which appeared to show bird carcasses with singed feathers, and while the species involved were blackbirds and warblers, experts have reported sightings of redtailed hawks and golden eagles above the site in the past.

Other birds are believed to have died after colliding with mirrors.

"We're trying to figure out how big the problem is and what we can do to minimise bird mortalities," said Mr Eric Davis, assistant regional director for migratory birds at the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Sacramento office.

He told the Wall Street Journal: "When you have new technologies, you don't know what the impact is going to be."

DOUBT

Though Ivanpah is an engineering marvel, experts doubt more plants like it will be built in California, Reuters reported.

This is because other solar technologies are now far less expensive, government guarantees for renewable energy projects have dried up, and natural gas-fired plants are much cheaper to build.


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