Pick up a magnifying lens, focus the sunlight onto a colony of ants. Needless to say, you would burn the ant. Replace the magnifying lens by 350,000 mirrors and the ant colony by the flock of birds, you would have precisely visualized the situation in the world’s largest solar thermal plant in the Mojave Desert.
The desert of mirrors is able to produce 392 megawatts (MW) of energy, and is capable of powering 140,000 California homes with clean energy and avoiding 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the article in Gizmodo states, may sound as a melody to the ears of a scientist but not to a environmentalist.
The intense heat surrounding the plant which can be as high as 1000 Fahrenheit is reported to burn the feathers of the birds. The dead birds included a peregrine falcon, a grebe, two hawks, four nighthawks and a variety of warblers and sparrows.
So, Is solar energy unsafe?
I would say NO. The case with the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is completely different than a solar photovoltaic plant. Ivanpah Solar System is built to work as a solar thermal plant and not as a solar photovoltaic plant. Let me clear up the terms.
Solar thermal plant installed in the Mojave desert contains numerous mirror which reflect the sunlight(photons) on to the three 459 foot towers. The concentrated energy will heat up the water in the boilers which are places in the tower and make it boil. The steam produced as a result of boiling of water will drive the concealed turbines and generate electricity. A thermal plant would have a very hot surrounding (we can’t walk close to it, it’s so hot).
Whereas a typical solar photovoltaic plant would capture(doesn’t reflect) the sunlight over an area using solar panels(instead of mirrors) and convert the solar energy into electricity using silicon solar cells by the process of “photoelectric effect”. This type of solar plant doesn’t change the surrounding temperature.
The solar panels which are present over the roof of a house is a miniature of photovoltaic plant. Hence don’t expect to see a bird lying dead beside your house since you have a solar system installed.
Even though both plants capture solar energy, the efficiency of energy conversion is different. An average solar photovoltaic plant would have an energy efficiency of around 20% where as a solar thermal plant would have an energy efficiency as high as 60%.
Yes, the photovoltaics have lesser efficiency than the thermal plants. But it’s much safer and requires less maintenance compared to the thermal panels. Photovoltaic panels produce the purest form of energy-no pollution, no environmental hazard, no bad effect on living species whatsoever.
My opinion about solar energy was and will always be positive. What’s your take on solar energy? Comment below.