This week the fact checkers at PolitiFact fixed a supposed problem with missing context by supplying completely misleading context.
Gohmert wasn't talking about solar panel farms. He was talking about facilities that concentrate reflected sunlight. Nor did Gohmert suggest avian deaths would bring the nation down. But those blunders represent the least of our worries.
The big problem in the fact check comes from its attempt to set the record straight. PolitiFact claimed Gohmert left out the fact that fossil fuel plants cause far more deaths than solar energy plants like the one Gohmert mentioned: "Solar farms kill thousands of birds, but not as many as fossil fuel plants."
"Is that true?" we wondered.
It may be true, we suppose. But the reasoning PolitiFact provided was illegitimate.
"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.
The big problem (there are many small problems in the fact check) starts between the two paragraphs above. The Jenkins quotation sets up the reader to expect that avian deaths caused by fossil fuel plants will represent deaths from "collisions, electrocution and poisoning."
But the second paragraph betrays that expectation. The 14.5 million estimate in the second paragraph comes almost entirely from the predicted effects of climate change.
We must be kidding, right?
We're not kidding.
PolitiFact's link leads to A preliminary assessment of avian mortality at utility-scale solar energy facilities in the United States, hosted at Science Direct. That paper estimates bird deaths at facilities like the Ivanpah solar facility Gohmert mentioned, including those under construction. The paper says it includes collisions with facility structures along with birds killed while trying to fly through the concentrated sunlight (formatting tweaked to help simulate the appearance of the original):
- Collision-related mortality – mortality resulting from the direct contact of the bird with a solar project structure(s). This type of mortality has been documented at solar projects of all technology types.
Solar flux-related mortality – mortality resulting from the burning/singeing effects of exposure to concentrated sunlight. Mortality may result in several ways: (a) direct mortality; (b) singeing of flight feathers that cause loss of flight ability, leading to impact with other objects; or (c) impairment of flight capability to reduce the ability to forage or avoid predators, resulting in starvation or predation of the individual . Solar flux-related mortality has been observed only at facilities employing power tower technologies.
As for the estimate for fossil fuel energy generation, the authors derived that based on research from an earlier paper:
We ... used the mortalities calculated by Sovacool  as an estimate of avian mortalities associated with fossil fuel power plants across the United States.
The Sovacool paper did not limit itself to the avian death categories PolitiFact mentioned. PolitiFact readers would naturally conclude that in a typical year such as 2019 (after the study was published), fossil fuel power generation resulted in approximately 14 million dead birds from collisions, electrocutions and poisoning.
In fact, the study got nearly that entire number by estimating future effects on bird populations in the United States from climate change.
So this PolitiFact fact check will be in the running for worst fact check of the year.
Adding the avian deaths from coal mining, plant operation, acid rain, mercury, and climate change together results in a total of 5.18 fatalities per GWh (see Table 3).Table 3:
Table 3 makes abundantly clear that Sovacool draws the great bulk of estimated avian deaths from fossil fuel electricity generation on the future effects of climate change.
Footnote No. 6 on the previous page makes that conclusion inescapable (bold emphasis added):
While there are more than 9800 species and an estimated global population of 100 billion to one trillion individual wild birds in the world, only 5.6 billion birds live in United States during the summer (Hughes et al., 1997; Elliott, 2003; Hassan et al., 2005). Taking the mean in climate change induced avian deaths expected by Thomas et al. (26%), one gets 1.5 billion birds spread across 41 years for the United States, or an average of 36.6 million dead birds per year. Attributing 39% of these deaths to power plants (responsible for 39% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions), one gets 14.3 million birds for 2.87 million GWh per year, or 4.98 deaths per GWh.
Note that the number in Sovacool's footnote closely matches the estimate from paper PolitiFact cited (14.5 million annually).
So PolitiFact is peddling an apples-to-oranges comparison between two types of bird deaths at solar energy power plants and future predicted climate change effects from fossil fuel energy plants. And doesn't tell you that's what it's doing.
It's hypocrisy of the highest order.
There are more layers to this BS narrative on bird deaths from fossil fuels, but suffice it to say that PolitiFact's claim that fossil fuel generation causes far more bird deaths than solar is far more misleading than Gohmert's claim about Ivanpah.