A preliminary assessment of avian mortality at utility-scale solar energy facilities in the United States

Highlights

First assessment of avian mortality at USSE facilities compared to other forms of avian mortality.

Project-specific monitoring reports were reviewed to estimate avian mortality at USSE facilities.

Estimated USSE-related avian mortality rates were similar to those estimated for the wind energy sector.

Estimated total annual mortality at USSE facilities was orders of magnitude lower than other forms of mortality.

Abstract

Despite the benefits of reduced toxic and carbon emissions and a perpetual energy resource, there is potential for negative environmental impacts resulting from utility-scale solar energy (USSE) development. Although USSE development may represent an avian mortality source, there is little knowledge regarding the magnitude of these impacts in the context of other avian mortality sources. In this study we present a first assessment of avian mortality at USSE facilities through a synthesis of available avian monitoring and mortality information at existing USSE facilities. Using this information, we contextualize USSE avian mortality relative to other forms of avian mortality at 2 spatial scales: a regional scale (confined to southern California) and a national scale. Systematic avian mortality information was available for three USSE facilities in the southern California region. We estimated annual USSE-related avian mortality to be between 16,200 and 59,400 birds in the southern California region, which was extrapolated to between 37,800 and 138,600 birds for all USSE facilities across the United States that are either installed or under construction. We also discuss issues related to avian–solar interactions that should be addressed in future research and monitoring programs.

Keywords

  • Avian mortality;
  • Utility-scale;
  • Solar energy;
  • Wind energy;
  • Fossil fuels;
  • Impact assessment

1. Introduction

Renewable energy development has been increasing as an alternative to fossil-fuel based technologies, in large part to reduce toxic air emissions and CO2-induced effects on climate [1] and [2]. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association [3], electric generation from renewables in the United States has increased by over 50% since 2004 and renewable energy sources currently provide approximately 14% of the nation’s electricity. Solar energy-based technologies represent a rapidly developing renewable energy sector that has seen exponential growth in recent years [4] and [5]. For example, since 2013 alone, cumulative installations of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy technologies, including residential, commercial, and utility-scale installations, have more than doubled in the United States [6].

Utility-scale solar energy (USSE) projects generate electricity for delivery via the electric transmission grid and sale in the utility market. This differs from distributed solar energy systems which are designed for electric generation and utilization at local scales. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) [7], there currently are approximately 800 USSE projects (≥1 MW [MW]) in the United States that are either in operations or under construction, representing approximately 14 GW (GW) of electric capacity. Based on solar insolation models developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory [8], the greatest solar resource potential in the United States occurs in the southwest within the six following states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California (Fig. 1). Indeed, most of the installed or planned utility-scale solar facilities in the United States (based on electric capacity and includes projects that are operating, under construction, and under development) are located within these six southwestern states (Fig. 2) [7].

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Solar energy potential in the United States [8].

Fig. 1. 

Solar energy potential in the United States [8].

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Total solar energy production capacity (MW) by County [7].

Fig. 2. 

Total solar energy production capacity (MW) by County [7].

There are two basic types of solar energy technologies employed at USSE installations in the United States [9]: photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP). Photovoltaic systems use cells to convert sunlight to electric current, whereas CSP systems use reflective surfaces to concentrate sunlight to heat a receiver. That heat is subsequently converted to electricity using a thermoelectric power cycle. CSP systems typically include power tower systems with heliostats (angled mirrors) and parabolic trough systems (parabolic mirrors). In the United States, most of the electricity produced by utility-scale solar energy projects through 2015 was generated using PV technologies [6].

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