Near-real-time data on bird-solar interactions will help the energy industry understand the risks and opportunities for wildlife at solar power plants.
How does an array of solar panels change a habitat? The issue is complex—and increasingly important as solar installations proliferate across the United States. However, industry and researchers currently do not have many answers. Researchers at the Ministry of Energy (DIE) Argonne National Laboratory is developing technology that can help.
As in any outdoor setting where wildlife is present, there is plenty of bird activity at solar arrays that people miss. Birds feed, they mate, they build nests, and unfortunately they die. What role the panels and equipment play in these activities is often a mystery. Human monitoring of solar installations is limited and can only reveal so much.
“Real-time bird-sun interactions are a data black hole,” said Misti Sporer, director of environmental development for utility Duke Energy, which operates more than 65 solar farms in the U.S.“We don’t have a complete picture of how birds use these places, because the minute you put someone on the ground, the birds fly off or they do something in response to the human surveyor.”
“We actually see birds using the habitat for seed foraging, for what appears to be nesting behavior, and what appears to be inter- and intra-species interaction.” — Misti Sporer, Duke Energy
A three-year, $1.3 million project funded by the DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office aims to let advanced cameras and artificial intelligence do the work of monitoring bird activity at solar facilities. Since spring 2020, Argonne researchers have been collecting video at solar power plants, including one operated by Duke, and training computer algorithms to recognize birds in the scenes. The system also learns to classify specific types of activity, including collisions with panels.
Federal and state laws protect many bird species, and environmental impact assessment is part of compliance with those laws. Solar developers and operators are often required to conduct pre-construction habitat assessments and post-construction mortality monitoring as part of the environmental assessment requirements for a project. Argonne’s technology could help with that task.
“Managers are doing their best to minimize adverse effects of facilities using the best available science,” said Yuki Hamada, a remote sensing scientist at Argonne and leader of the project. ,“Unfortunately, the best available science may contain significant uncertainty due to insufficient data in terms of quality, quantity and category.”
For example, a solar worker may find a carcass on the ground near some panels, but how the bird died is often unclear. A review of industry-funded solar cell death surveillance studies found that the cause of death could not be determined in more than half of the cases. Another study published in 2022 found that bird mortality at solar projects was often underestimated due to“low or insufficient monitoring duration.”
By collecting a large amount of near-real-time data that would include any collisions, Argonne’s monitoring system could fill critical data gaps to help understand the cause and extent of bird deaths.
On the other hand, solar facilities can promote beneficial bird behaviors, and understanding more about these behaviors can lead to bird-friendly facility designs and practices. Factors may include the location of the facility, the type and placement of equipment, and what vegetation is growing nearby. The technology can also help shed light on which types of birds are present in the area before and after a project is built.
“We actually see birds using the habitat for seed foraging, for what appears to be nesting behavior, and what appears to be inter- and intra-species interaction,” Sporer said of the data coming from Argonne’s system at a Duke Energy site in Arizona. ,“So I’m surprised by the amount of bird use at the site in terms of birds just being birds – no negative interactions.”
Argonne technology is currently in the early stages and great progress has been made. ,“A big focus has been on collecting lots of video that we can annotate and use to train our models,” said Adam Szymanski, an Argonne software engineer and technical lead on the project. ,“We have also built and trained many of the machine learning algorithms needed to identify birds in the landscape and classify activity. We have achieved fairly high accuracy on both of these fronts.”
In the current phase of the project, Hamada, Szymanski and the team continue to refine their model and demonstrate a working prototype system by spring 2023.
Amanda Klehr, project biologist at the consulting firm DNV Energy USA Inc., noted that there are many open questions related to bird activity and bird mortality on solar panels, particularly regarding which phenomena may be regional and which may be widespread. The“lake effect,” for example, where migrating birds mistake solar panels for bodies of water and collide with them, is a theory being investigated, particularly with regard to the southwestern United States.
““The main thing that solar developers are asking is what do we need to do in preconstruction studies to understand if there are potential risks to birds that could affect us in our region,” she said. She added that the Argonne monitoring system would be useful in her own master’s research at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which is funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and focused on how birds use solar cells in the northeastern United States during the breeding season.
The Avian Solar Work Group, a collaboration between environmental groups, academics and the solar energy industry, is exploring a range of research topics. Argonne avian solar monitoring technology is gaining interest as a tool not only for research but also for location and operation. The ability to collect more data with less human time roaming facilities would benefit the industry on the permitting and compliance front.
“Post-build mortality monitoring tends to be time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive,” Sporer said. Although it is still too early to say for sure, she said with remote monitoring“we think we would have fewer man-hours and actually be able to observe the interaction itself rather than the supposed outcome.”
Klehr noted that agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and state environmental departments, which are tasked with conserving resources around a solar plant, also play a role in determining how research and monitoring happens.
“As a consultant working with operators, we generally try to coordinate with agencies,” she said. ,“On the wind energy side, there is more focus on incorporating technology into monitoring. It’s also a potential for solar, and agencies see it in a more positive light.”
“Technology can be great, but solving problems with technology requires people to actually use it,” said Hamada. ,“We look forward to further validating this system in the field.”
After the prototype is completed in 2023, the next step will be to implement Argonne’s system on several solar plants with industry partners.
Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
By Christina Nunez
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