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How a bird started a fire at a California solar farm

LUCERNE VALLEY, CALIF. -- MONDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2019: A view of a smaller-scale commercial solar pro
A commercial solar project in San Bernardino County’s Lucerne Valley.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Bloomberg

It may be safe for a bird to land on an electrical wire, but not on two of them at once.

A June 5 fire at a California solar farm that scorched 1,127 acres started when a bird flew into a pair of wires, creating an electric circuit and a shower of sparks, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection official said. It didn’t end well for the power plant — or the bird.

“One wing touches each of the conductors, and they turn into a light bulb,” said Zach Nichols, a Cal Fire battalion chief. “Happens all the time.”

The company that owns the California Valley Solar Ranch solar farm, Clearway Energy Inc., had blamed the fire on an “avian incident” without saying what exactly happened at the remote facility in the arid grasslands between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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The blaze damaged power poles and wires at the 250-megawatt plant and knocked out 84% of its generating capacity, causing an estimated $8 million to $9 million in losses, the company said.

The California Valley project was built by SunPower Corp. and was funded in part with a $1.24-billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Energy Department. It was completed in 2013 and sells power to PG&E Corp Pacific Gas & Electric.

California is home to a different solar plant that’s notorious for burning birds. But that facility — the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert — uses another technology altogether. At Ivanpah, fields of mirrors concentrate sunlight onto centralized towers, posing a hazard to birds flying into the beams.

The California Valley fire, in contrast, occurred at a solar farm that uses photovoltaic panels, just like the ones on rooftops.

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