Q: I guess I hadn't kept up on the solar panels being installed in Hancock, [but] was surprised to read there are 12 acres of them. I think I read somewhere a long time ago about birds flying over large areas of solar panels getting fried by the heat. Is that so, do they pose a problem for birds?

— Karen A.

A: The Hancock installation will not burn birds flying over its panels. I believe you are referring to plants like the Bright Source Energy installation in the Mojave Desert. Following are some excerpts that appeared in an Associated Press report by Ellen Knickmeyer and John Locher, Aug. 18, 2014.

IVANPAH DRY LAKE, Calif. (AP) >> Workers at a state-of-the-art solar plant in the Mojave Desert have a name for birds that fly through the plant's concentrated sun rays — "streamers," for the smoke plume that comes from birds that ignite in midair.

Federal wildlife investigators who visited the BrightSource Energy plant (near the California-Nevada border) last year and watched as birds burned and fell, reporting an average of one "streamer" every two minutes, are urging California officials to halt the operator's application to build a still-bigger version.

At this particular BrightSource installation, more than 300,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, reflect solar rays onto three boiler towers each looming up to 40 stories high. The water inside is heated to produce steam, which turns turbines that generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials warned California this month that the power-tower style of solar technology holds "the highest lethality potential" of the many solar projects burgeoning in the deserts of California. The operator says it's the world's biggest plant to employ so-called power towers.

There are several kinds of solar collectors in use today, and besides the one just mentioned, another is the troth style, shaped like a shallow U. These solar collectors capture and concentrate sunlight to heat a synthetic oil, which then heats water to create steam. The steam is piped to an on-site turbine-generator to produce electricity, which is then transmitted over power lines.

In another style, the flat panel array of solar cells, similar to those being placed on roofs and ground as in Hancock are the most passive, although large installations sometimes fool birds into thinking the panels are water, and draw them down to collide with the panels surface.

"I strongly believe there's a way to show the birds that the PV panels are solid surfaces, not water," said Ileene Anderson, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity."

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.