Intelligent Energy

Death by solar panel: a bug's life

Death by solar panel: a bug's life

Posting in Environment

As the solar industry grows, more and more insects are mistaking solar panels for water, with consequences for the food chain. Researchers are seeking ways to end the zapping.

The reflective glint of dark solar panels is pretty, almost water-like. If I were wandering thirstily near any one of the world's desert solar facilities, perhaps I'd be convinced of water in the distance. But I'd surely detect the false oasis before I dove in.

An insect? Not so much.

Say what you will about insect intelligence, but bugs see the world differently than we do (and often with a greater number of eyes). Attracted to polarized light for food or breeding purposes, many aquatic insects lay their eggs on or are hypnotized to death by solar's shiny surfaces.

Michigan State University's Bruce Robertson, publishing his work in Conservation Biology, worries that the accidental bug zappings could have cascading effects throughout an ecosystem.

At risk are populations of hydrophilic insects—mayflies, caddis flies, beetles, stoneflies—and whatever other animals rely on them for food (birds, frogs, fish, etc.).

Discovery News quotes Robertson:

It's like these organisms become dazzled to death. 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.

Of course, solar panels aren't the only source of polarized light pollution. The mirrored surfaces of cars, buildings, windows, and even asphalt fry their share of insect eggs. (Not to mention the millions of birds that perish after striking windows each year.)

In any case, Robertson suggests diminishing solar's threat to insects by adding white grids or strips, already used in some systems. With limited loss to solar's efficiency, he says the bit of white can disrupt the illusion of pools of welcoming water and reduce insect attraction by 10 to 26-fold.

In the photo to the right, damage goes both ways. As the beetle lays eggs on the surface of this red car, the eggs' acidic coating will corrode the vehicle's paint.

Images: theentiremikey_Flickr, Bruce Robertson, Gyorgy Kriska

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure