Why do solar farms kill birds? Call the AI ​​Bird Watcher

American solar farms have a bird problem. Utility companies have found bird carcasses littering the ground in their facilities for years, a strange and unexpected consequence of the national solar boom. No one really knew why this was happening, but it was clearly a problem for a type of energy that was billed as being green. Thus, in 2013, a group of public services, academics and environmental organizations came together to form the Avian Solar Working Group develop strategies to mitigate bird deaths in solar installations in the United States.

“There has been very little research on the impacts of solar energy on birds,” says Misti Sporer, senior environmental scientist at Duke Energy, a North Carolina electric utility, and a member of the task force. . “What does it mean when you find a dead bird?” No one really knew. But simply getting the data on bird deaths at solar installations has proven difficult.

In 2016, a first of its kind study estimated that the hundreds of large-scale solar farms in the United States could kill nearly 140,000 birds per year. That’s less than a tenth of a percent of the estimated number of birds killed by fossil-fueled power plants (through collisions, electrocutions and poisonings), but the researchers expected that number will almost triple as the planned solar farms come on stream. The link between solar installations and bird deaths is still unclear. Leading theory suggests that birds mistake solar panel glare for the surface of a lake and rush for a landing, with deadly results. “But this assumption is from a human point of view,” says Sporer. “Do birds even see people? We need to collect more data to form a complete picture. “

Bird movement captured on video. A series of small video images will be used for a computer model to learn what a bird would look like. Courtesy of the Argonne National Laboratory

Earlier this year, the Department of Energy awarded a team of researchers from the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois a $ 1.3 million contract to develop an artificial intelligence platform dedicated to the study. bird behavior in large-scale solar installations in the United States. The researchers hope the data their system collects will help bird watchers unravel the mystery of the mass deaths of our feathered friends on solar farms. “The important thing is to reduce the environmental impact of solar energy in all its forms,” says Yuki Hamada, biophysics at Argonne, who is leading the project. “These avian issues are a concern and something that the renewable energy industry wants to understand and mitigate.”

Only a few areas of the United States have regulations that require solar operators to report bird deaths at their facilities; most large American solar farms don’t bother with this long and morbid calculation. Those that do are limited in their ability to collect quality data and can only send investigators to count bird carcasses on a solar farm only once a month. While this helps solar power plant operators understand how many birds are dying, it doesn’t offer much information about Why they die. For that, they need real-time observations.

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