Near real-time data on avian-solar interactions will help the energy industry understand the risks and opportunities for wildlife at solar power plants.
How does a set of solar panels change a habitat? The question is complex – and increasingly important, as solar power plants proliferate in the United States. Industry and researchers, however, currently don’t have many answers. Researchers from the Department of Energy (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory is developing technology that can help.
As with any outdoor environment where wildlife is present, many bird activities occur in solar installations that humans lack. The birds feed, mate, nest and unfortunately they die. What role signs and equipment play in these activities is often a mystery. Human surveillance at solar sites is limited and can only reveal so much.
“Real-time avian-solar interactions are a black hole in terms of data,” said Misti Sporer, director of environmental development at utility company Duke Energy, which operates more than 65 solar power plants in the United States.“We don’t have a complete picture of how the birds use these sites because the minute you put someone down the birds either fly away or they do something in reaction to the human surveyor.
“We actually see birds using the habitat for seed searching, for what appears to be nesting behavior, and what appears to be inter- and intraspecific interaction. —Misti Sporer, Duke Energy
A three-year, $1.3 million project funded by the DOE’s Office of Solar Energy Technologies aims to let advanced cameras and artificial intelligence do the work of monitoring bird activity at facilities solar. Since the spring of 2020, Argonne researchers have been collecting video from solar power sites, 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 signs.
Federal and state laws protect many species of birds, and environmental impact review is part of complying with those laws. Developers and solar operators are often required to conduct pre-construction habitat assessments and post-construction death monitoring as part of a project’s environmental review requirements. Argonne’s technology could help with this task.
“Managers are doing their best to minimize the negative effects of the facilities using the best science available,” said Yuki Hamada, Argonne remote sensing scientist and project leader.“The best available science, unfortunately, can contain considerable uncertainty due to insufficient data in terms of quality, quantity and category.
A solar worker may find a carcass on the ground near certain panels, for example, but how the bird died is often unclear. A review of death surveillance studies at solar sites, which was funded by industry, 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 rates in solar projects were often underestimated due to“low or insufficient monitoring time.
By collecting a large amount of near real-time data that would include all 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 installations can promote beneficial behaviors for birds, and a better understanding of these behaviors could lead to bird-friendly installation designs and practices. Factors may include installation location, type and location of equipment, and vegetation growing nearby. The technology could also help shed light on the types of birds present in the area before and after the construction of a project.
“We actually see birds using the habitat for foraging for seeds, for what appears to be nesting behavior and what appears to be inter- and intra-species interaction,” Sporer said of the data from the system. of Argonne at a Duke Energy site in Arizona.“So I’m surprised at the amount of birds used on the site in terms of birds just being birds – no negative interactions.
Argonne technology is currently in its infancy and many advancements have been made.“The focus has been on collecting lots of videos that we can annotate and use to train our models,” said Adam Szymanski, software engineer at Argonne and technical lead for 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 achieved fairly high accuracy on both 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 UNITED STATES Inc., noted that there are many open questions related to bird activity and bird mortality at solar sites, particularly regarding which phenomena might be regional and which might 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 explored, particularly with regard to the southwestern United States. United States.
“The main question solar developers are asking is what do we need to do in terms of pre-construction surveys to understand whether or not there are any potential bird hazards that could affect us in our area,” he said. she declared. She added that the Argonne monitoring system would be useful in her own master’s research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which is funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and focused on how birds use sites. suns in the northeastern United States during the breeding season.
The Avian Solar Work Group, a collaboration between environmental groups, academics and the solar industry, is exploring a variety of research topics. Argonne’s avian solar monitoring technology is gaining interest as a tool not only for research but also for implementation and operation. The ability to collect more data with less roaming time for humans would benefit industry from a licensing and compliance perspective.
“Post-construction mortality monitoring tends to be time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive,” Sporer said. Although it’s still early to say for sure, she said, with remote monitoring“we think we would have fewer hours of work and be able to observe the interaction itself, rather than the suspected outcome. »
Klehr noted that agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state environmental departments, which are tasked with conserving resources around a solar site, also play a role in determining how research and monitoring are taking place.
“As a consultant working with operators, we usually try to coordinate with the agencies,” she said.“On the wind energy side, there is more emphasis on integrating technology into monitoring. It’s also a potential for solar power, and agencies see that in a more positive light.
“Technology can be great, but solving problems with technology requires people to actually use it,” Hamada said.“We look forward to further validating this system in the field.
Once the prototype is completed in 2023, the next step will be to deploy Argonne’s system to more solar sites with industry partners.
Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne is operated by UChicago Argonne, SARL for the Office of Science of the United States Department of Energy.
By Christina Nunez
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