Friday, June 11, 2010

Solar Panels Lure Insects to Their Death

The siren call of polarized light from solar energy panels — in this case, masquerading as water to the hapless insects buzzing by — seems to be cooking bugs sunny side up. New research from Michigan State University shows that solar panels are beckoning bugs to their death. Attracted by water-mimicking polarized light that's reflected by the panels, the bugs are apparently unable to tear themselves away and exhaust themselves in flight over the panels. "It's like these organisms become dazzled to death," said study leader Bruce Robertson of Michigan State University. "It's like going to the most amazing 3D movie you've ever seen and you can't leave. They just fly and fly and fly over these surfaces, and they get exhausted and die."

The ramifications could mean more than a mere buzz-kill. More worrisome than the sheer number of dead insects is what their absence could mean for the local food chain. As solar energy installations become larger and more numerous, scientists worry about the effects on wildlife. It could become especially problematic in fragile desert ecosystems where sunshine plentiful and water is scarce; the reflections could fool bugs for miles around, drawing them to their deaths.

Two solutions may offer a way around the dilemma. Scientists have noticed that applying white strips to the panels that divide the area of polarizing reflections cuts down on their attractive effect. Many solar panels are already manufactured this way. Even better for wildlife is pushing for more solar installations on rooftops and parking lots in cities and developed areas, where the added value of solar energy doesn't come at the expense of tipping fragile ecosystems.

Beyond the decreased danger to insect populations, these smaller rooftop installations are safer for wildlife in other ways, too. Solar panels can change the microclimate of an area, provide perches for predators, and increase the population of certain opportunistic animals like crows and ravens. And, like any other construction, solar energy has a footprint (though relatively small) that can stamp out habitat. Since these factors already exist in developed areas, the addition of solar panels has less of an impact on native wildlife.

With climate change threatening species of all sizes, we can't afford not to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy like solar and wind; it just needs to happen responsibly.


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