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Evaluating the effectiveness of wildlife detection and observation technologies at a solar power tower facility

July 27, 2016

Solar power towers produce electrical energy from sunlight at an industrial scale. Little is known about the effects of this technology on flying animals and few methods exist for automatically detecting or observing wildlife at solar towers and other tall anthropogenic structures. Smoking objects are sometimes observed co-occurring with reflected, concentrated light (“solar flux”) in the airspace around solar towers, but the identity and origins of such objects can be difficult to determine. In this observational pilot study at the world’s largest solar tower facility, we assessed the efficacy of using radar, surveillance video, and insect trapping to detect and observe animals flying near the towers. During site visits in May and September 2014, we monitored the airspace surrounding towers and observed insects, birds, and bats under a variety of environmental and operational conditions. We detected and broadly differentiated animals or objects moving through the airspace generally using radar and near solar towers using several video imaging methods. Video revealed what appeared to be mostly small insects burning in the solar flux. Also, we occasionally detected birds flying in the solar flux but could not accurately identify birds to species or the types of insects and small objects composing the vast majority of smoking targets. Insect trapping on the ground was somewhat effective at sampling smaller insects around the tower, and presence and abundance of insects in the traps generally trended with radar and video observations. Traps did not tend to sample the larger insects we sometimes observed flying in the solar flux or found dead on the ground beneath the towers. Some of the methods we tested (e.g., video surveillance) could be further assessed and potentially used to automatically detect and observe flying animals in the vicinity of solar towers to advance understanding about their effects on wildlife.