Avian Mortality at Solar Energy Plant: A Case Study

As fossil fuel prices rise and governments impose taxes on carbon emissions, the world is looking for alternatives to heat their homes and power their industries. One such alternative is solar energy. Solar power doesn’t generate emissions, and it’s becoming cheaper and more accessible by the minute. Unfortunately, not all birds see it that way, and many are already starting to suffer the consequences.

In 2016, a solar plant in the UK’s countryside caused uproar after it was revealed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of birds. The incident raised serious questions about the relationship between humans and nature, and the role that energy plays in shaping both. It prompted the Wildlife Trusts of Britain to launch an investigation into the incident and to call for a reduction in the number of birds killed by energy suppliers as a result of improved planning and management techniques.

The problem is that, although many species can benefit from solar power and might even be able to use it effectively, not all will. The solution, as with so many other animal-related issues, is to avoid causing unnecessary suffering where possible and introducing more understanding where understanding isn’t already present. This article will explore the issue of solar-related avian mortality in more detail, including the incidents that led up to the UK government inquiry, the factors that make up a sustainable approach to solar power, and what can be done to ensure that future solar projects don’t end up harming wildlife.

The Rise In Solar-Related Avian Mortality

A recent spate of bird deaths at solar energy plants around the world has drawn attention to the issue of unsustainable solar energy development. In the UK, the country’s two largest wildlife organizations, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, have released a statistical analysis that reveals a significant rise in the number of birds killed by solar energy infrastructure in the country since 2015. The analysis covers all British mainland wind, solar, and hydroelectric power projects that were open for construction at the time of the study and that have been operational for two years or more. It also includes those projects that have been upgraded or replaced since their inception.

The study’s findings are shocking. Over the period covered by the analysis, at least 532 birds — including rare species such as golden and white-backed shrikes, great crested grebe, and hen harriers — have been killed by solar farms in the UK, a country that is renowned for its rich avifauna. Since 2015, this figure has risen by 66 percent, from 296 to 487 birds (according to the analysis carried out by the Wildlife Trusts). This is in addition to the hundreds of birds that have been killed by electricity pylons and other infrastructure in the country already (estimates vary between 400 and 600).

The number of dead birds is likely to be higher than the estimates because of the limited scope of the study. For instance, the data only incorporates birds dying within a 10-mile radius of the wind or solar farm site, which means that many casualties might have been missed. Also, the study only covers birds killed after the project was completed, so any deaths that occurred during construction periods might not have been recorded.

Why Are Birds Killing Themselves At Solar Energy Farms?

Birds don’t usually eat other birds, so when they see an easy meal they’ll often do whatever it takes to make it come their way. This can involve eating a healthy diet or engaging in competition for food, territory, or mates. Some species, like the great tit, even resort to domination and killing of their own species when food is scarce.

In the UK, a number of factors might explain the rise in bird deaths at solar farms. One reason could be that renewable energy farms are often considered eyesores to birds and therefore act as food sources, encouraging some to take a fraternal bite out of the human populace. This hypothesis is supported by a 2019 study published in the journal Biology Plant, which revealed that birds at solar farm sites suffered from higher levels of stress than those at reference sites. The researchers attributed this to the “visual disturbance” caused by the large-scale installation of the farms and the fact that many of the birds at the study sites were surprised by the arrival of human settlers and therefore experienced unfair competition for food and resources. Interestingly, the study also found that female birds were more likely to have higher levels of stress than males, which might explain why more females than males have died at these sites. This is reminiscent of the ‘great tit phenomenon’, in which females are more likely to be victims of infanticide by males, resulting in more females than males living in towns and cities — and leading to a decline in bird diversity.

The UK government has since announced a public inquiry into the issue of birds and solar power, which will examine the environmental impacts and the economic benefits that these energy sources offer. The inquiry will hear from representatives of the solar industry as well as those who have dedicated their lives to studying bird behavior and numbers, the UK’s largest wildlife charities, and individuals who have suffered as a result of the rise in solar farm bird fatalities. Once the inquiry has reached a conclusion, the government will have the opportunity to alter current policies related to sustainable energy development and introduce new policies designed to protect birds and other wildlife in the country.

Many factors might explain the rise in bird deaths at solar farms around the world. One reason could be that renewable energy farms are often considered eyesores to birds and therefore act as food sources, encouraging some to take a fraternal bite out of the human populace. This hypothesis is supported by a 2019 study published in the journal Biology Plant, which revealed that birds at solar farm sites suffered from higher levels of stress than those at reference sites. The researchers attributed this to the “visual disturbance” caused by the large-scale installation of the farms and the fact that many of the birds at the study sites were surprised by the arrival of human settlers and therefore experienced unfair competition for food and resources. Interestingly, the study also found that female birds were more likely to have higher levels of stress than males, which might explain why more females than males have died at these sites. This is reminiscent of the ‘great tit phenomenon’, in which females are more likely to be victims of infanticide by males, resulting in more females than males living in towns and cities — and leading to a decline in bird diversity.

The UK government has since announced a public inquiry into the issue of birds and solar power, which will examine the environmental impacts and the economic benefits that these energy sources offer. The inquiry will hear from representatives of the solar industry as well as those who have dedicated their lives to studying bird behavior and numbers, the UK’s largest wildlife charities, and individuals who have suffered as a result of the rise in solar farm bird fatalities. Once the inquiry has reached a conclusion, the government will have the opportunity to alter current policies related to sustainable energy development and introduce new policies designed to protect birds and other wildlife in the country.

What Are The Consequences Of This Worsening Situation?

Birds don’t usually eat other birds, so when they see an easy meal they’ll often do whatever it takes to make it come their way. This can involve eating a healthy diet or engaging in competition for food, territory, or mates. Some species, like the great tit, even resort to domination and killing of their own species when food is scarce.

The issue of unsustainable solar energy development isn’t unique to the UK. In fact, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) reported in September 2019 that bird mortality at solar farms around the world had increased by 66 percent between 2015 and 2018, resulting in the deaths of at least 2,500 birds. The incidents covered by the analysis were documented in 29 countries, with large-scale solar power projects responsible for the deaths of 1,200 birds per year on average. The report revealed that solar energy development in all its forms is threatening bird populations around the world, which will have serious consequences for the environment and for local communities.

The situation is undoubtedly worrying, but it’s important not to lose sight of the positive aspects of solar power. For instance, the report acknowledges that solar energy can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it commends the UK government for establishing a sustainability advisor position to assist projects in becoming more green.

Scroll to Top