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Jason Asenso
By Jason Asenso August 17, 2021

Solar farms kill thousands of birds, but not as many as fossil fuel plants

If Your Time is short

  • Birds die from solar energy production, but it’s far fewer than the estimates of how many die from fossil fuel production. 

  • Scientists estimate between 37,800 and 138,600 birds die in the U.S. from all forms of solar energy production annually, compared with the 14.5 million avian deaths attributed to fossil fuel power plants.

  • Biden’s infrastructure has some climate provisions, but is not comparable to the Green New Deal.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert criticized President Joe Biden’s infrastructure policy, saying it promotes green energy that poses a danger to birds.

Gohmert, R-Texas, went on the One America News channel on Aug. 11 to criticize the infrastructure bill and compared its green energy provisions to the Green New Deal:

"Another part of that green deal is the huge solar farm that they have out on the border of California and Nevada. Thousands of acres of concave mirrors that magnify the sun toward three towers, heat up the liquid in there and turn turbines. They weren't anticipating that there would be hundreds and thousands of what they would call flamers because when the birds fly through, if they survive the windmills, then they hit that magnified sun, explode in flame and down, they go bird, guts all over the mirrors. So that takes some cleaning up. This is the green stuff that's just out of control and is going to bring the nation down"

We’ve fact-checked multiple claims about bird deaths and wind turbines, but this was the first time we heard a politician associate bird deaths with solar energy.

Gohmert was likely referencing a 2014 article that described what workers at a Southern California solar power plant called "streamers" (not "flamers"). The report about the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California, a power plant that uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays, said birds fly through its concentrated sun rays and ignite midair.

Thousands of birds have died after flying over these kinds of solar power plants, but Gohmert’s assertion misses important context.

"It is wrong to single out solar and wind (power) as having bird mortality issues," said David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship. "The estimated number of birds killed by fossil fuel power plants through collisions, electrocution and poisoning actually dwarfs those attributed to solar and wind."

A 2016 study found that solar power plants cause 37,800 to 138,600 annual avian deaths in the U.S., compared with 14.5 million attributed to fossil fuel power plants. Another study attributed 365 million to 988 million avian deaths to collisions with buildings and windows.

Experts said that most solar energy generated in the U.S. comes from photovoltaic panels, not concentrated solar power towers like the one at the Ivanpah plant that created the conditions that fatally harmed these birds.

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"There are only two existing concentrated solar power tower projects in the U.S., and one of them recently went bankrupt," said Robyn Shepherd, a spokesperson for the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting birds and their habitats.

While Gohmert is right that thousands of birds died at the Ivanpah plant, he implies that the potential deaths from the "green stuff" provisions in Biden’s infrastructure bill is a reason the House of Representatives should not pass it.

But experts say that renewable energy has the benefit of reducing climate change, even when it has other consequences.

"All forms of human development have the potential for environmental impact, and renewable energy development is no exception, said ​​Leroy Walston, a leading environmental scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory and author of the study estimating avian deaths from solar power.

Gohmert’s office declined to respond to questions about his claim.

During the broadcast, Gohmert compared the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the Green New Deal, a comparison that PolitiFact rated Mostly False. Biden’s plan has a smaller scope than the Green New Deal, leaving out broader social goals like universal health care and affordable higher education.

The cost and climate provisions of Biden’s plan allocate $73 billion to modernize the nation’s electricity grid so it can carry more renewable energy, according to The New York Times.

Our ruling

Gohmert claimed hundreds and thousands of "flamers" die from solar farms.

Birds have been found to ignite after flying over solar farms that use concentrated solar power. However, most solar farms in the U.S. use photovoltaic panels, which have not been found to cause birds to die in this manner. Gohmert’s claim ignores findings that show significantly more birds die from fossil fuel production or colliding with buildings each year.

We rate this claim Half True.

Our Sources

PolitiFact, Citizens United calls Biden's infrastructure plan the Green New Deal. It isn't., April 2, 2021

New York Times, Infrastructure Bill Includes $73 Billion for Electricity Grid, Aug. 2, 2021

CBS SF Bay Area, Birds Bursting Into Flames Above Solar Farm Stirs Calls To Slow Expansion, Aug. 18, 2014

Science Direct, Contextualizing avian mortality: A preliminary appraisal of bird and bat fatalities from wind, fossil-fuel, and nuclear electricity, June 2009

Ornithological Applications, Bird–building collisions in the United States: Estimates of annual mortality and species vulnerability, Feb. 1, 2014

A Twitter post 

National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Power Tower | Concentrating Solar Power Projects | NREL, accessed Aug. 16, 2021

The Dallas Morning News, Gohmert says birds are bursting in air as he blasts infrastructure bill's renewable energy projects, Aug. 13, 2021

Email interview with David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, Aug. 13, 2021

Email interview with Leroy Walston, environmental scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, Aug. 13, 2021

Email interview with Robyn Shepherd, spokesperson at the National Audubon Society, Aug. 13, 2021

Email interview with Rep. Louie Gohmert’s press office, Aug. 17, 2021

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Solar farms kill thousands of birds, but not as many as fossil fuel plants

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