Alcatraz Solar Isn’t For The Birds (But They Like It)

It was no easy task getting a thousand or so solar panels past preservationists PO’d at the idea of PV on the iconic Alcatraz penitentiary – and now that the modules are up and operating, there’s the challenge of keeping the bird poop off them.

A National Renewable Energy Laboratory feature detailed the challenge of locating the panels out of view of tourists, but didn’t scrape the surface of the bird-droppings issue. However, Pike Research Senior Analyst Peter Asmus recently visited The Rock and found birds to be “the most persistent issue” for its spiffy new solar-equipped microgrid.

alcatraz solar power

image via National Park Service

Asmus wrote:

“Though naturalists initially worried that the solar PV panels that cover the roof would scare away birds, gulls have actually found them quite appealing. In fact, they sometimes nest under the panels. Unfortunately, they tend to leave behind their waste, which degrades performance and requires an ongoing, and messy, maintenance task. Kept clean, the solar PV panels can meet the entire island’s power supply, even during San Francisco’s famous fog, which reduces potential output by more than half.”

According to a 2010 report [PDF] by the National Parks Conservation Association, “Since 1975, growing populations of western gulls, Brandt’s cormorants, and other colonial waterbirds have occupied a large portion of Alcatraz Island, including developed areas that have historic structures. The nesting habitat provided by Alcatraz is considered of significant importance in the larger San Francisco Bay Area because development and pollution have decreased suitable nesting areas elsewhere.”

alcatraz solar birds

image via National Parks Conservation Association

Plans to solarize Alcatraz, using funds from the 2009 stimulus, made news in 2010, “but problems with nesting birds and the visibility of the panels delayed installation,” NREL said.

That wasn’t the first time a solar initiative ran into problems on Alcatraz.

NREL said that way back in 1995, the National Park Service, which oversees the island, and the Federal Energy Management Program contracted with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to turn the gray lockup green. SMUD actually put a new roof and stanchions for panels on the prison’s New Industries Building, but then a historical landmark group cried foul.

More recently, with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pumping money into clean energy projects at parks and historic sites around the country, solar for Alcatraz got new life.

All the delays, it turns out, were a blessing. “Happily,” NREL said, “the progress made by the PV industry over the years — primarily higher-efficiency PV panels — made it possible to put the entire PV system on the roof of the Cellhouse, where it is less visible.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.


  • Reply July 30, 2012


    Why are we providing funding for prisons?  We should be providing for hospitals where it really costs to stay!

  • Reply December 19, 2012


    It’s neither a prison nor a hospital. It’s a historical landmark, an important one in the history of the United States, that is also located in one of the most visited cities in the world!

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