Wind Energy And Birds FAQ — Part 1: Understanding The Threats
By Michael Hutchins April 08, 2017
Michael Hutchins, Director of ABC’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign, answers some of the more frequently asked questions about threats: How does wind energy threaten birds? What bird species are most threatened? How does the threat of wind energy compare to that of climate change?
How does wind energy threaten birds and bats?
Wind turbines and their associated infrastructure — notably power lines and towers — are among the fastest-growing threats to birds and bats in the United States and Canada.
We estimate that hundreds of thousands of birds and bats die every year when they accidentally collide with turbine blades.
Fragile-bodied bats can even succumb to the pressures created when the giant turbine blades pass through the air, a phenomenon known as barotrauma.
Associated power lines and towers, which carry the electrical power generated by wind turbines into the grid, kill an additional 8 to 57 million birds every year through collisions and electrocutions. Furthermore, wind energy development can also contribute to habitat loss and road and other infrastructure construction, all of which can have significant impacts on birds.
When it comes to wind energy, siting is everything. The risks are, of course, much greater when wind turbines are placed in areas attracting large concentrations of birds and bats. When wind energy projects are located in or near major migratory routes, stopover sites, or key breeding or foraging areas, the losses are expected to be great. ABC believes that such high-risk areas should be avoided at all costs.
Do we know exactly how many birds are killed by wind turbines and wind energy infrastructure every year?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. All we have at present are very rough and potentially biased estimates that are based on an accumulation of studies from individual, unidentified wind energy facilities.
The reason? The wind industry treats these data as trade secrets and generally does not share them with the public or concerned conservation organizations.
There are also methodological challenges.
Finally, many of these estimates are several years old and are likely now out of date. In the years since many of these data were collected, wind energy companies have built many more turbines, power lines, and other infrastructure. This suggests that the toll on birds and bats is now much greater.
The fact that the energy companies are allowed to self-report their own violations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) is a violation of the first principle of scientific integrity — that is, those that have a vested interest in the outcome should not be the ones collecting and reporting their results to regulatory agencies.
Are certain species of birds more impacted by wind energy than others?
This is a challenge for all of the reasons previously mentioned — reporting is voluntary, inconsistent, and out of date.
That said, we do know that many species of birds are impacted by wind turbines and that those species that are most susceptible to turbine collisions and/or displacement are raptors, night-migrating songbirds, and grassland birds.
Doesn’t climate change pose a bigger threat to birds than wind turbines? Aren’t wind turbines better than the alternatives of coal or natural gas?
Climate change certainly poses a significant threat to wildlife and their habitats, and wind power is viewed as a major player in our efforts to combat climate change.
However, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, hydroelectric dams were viewed as a source of clean, renewable energy. Now they are being torn down due to their unintended environmental impacts.
The same goes for biofuels, which are now being seen as a contributor to climate change, rather than a viable source of clean, renewable energy.
Poorly sited wind turbines could be next in line for enhanced scrutiny.
Wind turbines are a cleaner source of energy than fossil fuels. This is true. But does this mean wind energy developers should be less regulated than others in the energy sector? Should they be allowed to kill tens of thousands of federally protected birds and bats annually with impunity? We at ABC believe the answer to these questions is “no.”
In response to this very question, we at ABC developed the concept of “Bird-Smart” wind energy development. Put simply, this term is used to describe wind energy projects that are designed to minimize bird fatalities to every extent possible Bird-Smart wind energy:
- ensures turbines are located away from high bird collision risk areas;
- employs effective (tested) mitigation to minimize bird fatalities;
- conducts independent, transparent, post-construction monitoring of bird and bat deaths to help inform mitigation; and
- calculates and provides fair compensation for the loss of ecologically important, federally protected birds.
Editor’s note: Learn more about Bird-Smart wind energy.
See list of References
via American Bird Conservancy, abcbirds.org