The impact of a 'trough' Concentrated Solar Power facility on birds and other animals in the Northern Cape, South Africa

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The environmental impacts of solar power generation and particularly Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) are not well understood. There have been reports of birds injured and killed by concentrated solar radiation at power 'towers' and from collisions with mirrors at both tower and 'trough' facilities. This study assesses the impacts of a utility-scale 50 MW 'trough' CSP facility - Bokpoort CSP Power Plant - in the Northern Cape, South Africa. To assess the changes in functional and structural changes in bird communities, bird counts in the solar fields (mirror arrays) were compared with transects from rangelands adjacent to the CSP plant. Invertebrates were sampled with sticky and pitfall traps adjacent to the power block, in the solar fields, and in the rangeland landscape to assess changes in invertebrate communities. There were significant changes in bird distribution across the landscape with more species richness and two orders of magnitude greater abundance in the rangeland compared to the solar fields. Fewer invertebrates were caught, but with a greater taxonomic richness in rangeland compared to the power block and solar field. The facilities' evaporation ponds created novel wetland habitat for birds; 23 species were recorded that would have been absent from the area prior to construction, including three breeding species. The solar fields were surveyed for bird injuries or fatalities over 3 months; only eight dead birds were found, all but one was too old to determine the cause of death (>1 month); the remaining carcass likely died from a mirror impact. Western Barn Owls (Tyto alba) made up half of the mortalities. Biases in mortality estimates due to searcher efficiency and scavenger removal were substantial only for small birds. Twenty-one animals (3 reptiles, 12 mammals, 6 birds) likely drowned in the evaporation ponds after being unable to escape. The recorded mortalities were very low in comparison with similar studies on CSP facilities. No threatened or endangered species were killed. Overall, the facility had a low impact on bird populations, but the drowning risk posed to animals by evaporation ponds requires mitigation. The negative impacts observed could be minimised through careful site selection of solar facilities and careful design and mitigation considerations particularly with regard to evaporation and water ponds in arid areas such as the Northern Cape.