If solar and wind farms are needed to protect the natural environment, why do they so often destroy it?
- New offshore wind turbines in Germany could “lead to the extinction of individual species” including the rare, intelligent, and highly-threatened harbor porpoise, according to Friends of the Earth-Germany (BUND).
- Migratory bat populations, including the hoary bat, could could go extinct, say scientists, if the expansion of wind energy in North America continues.
- A single California solar farm, Ivanpah, required the killing of hundreds of desert tortoises, the state’s threatened reptile, and annually kills six thousand birds by lighting them on fire.
- Wind turbines on California’s Altamont Pass killed an estimated 4,700 bird kills annuallyincluding Golden Eagles. “Some lose their wings,” says the Audubon Society, “others are decapitated, and still others are cut in half.”
Come on, you might be thinking — aren’t these impacts trivial compared to other threats? After all, house cats kill between one and four billion birds per year in the U.S.
That number makes the 16,200 to 59,400 birds killed annually by solar farms in southern California, and the 140,000 to 328,000 birds killed annually by wind turbines in the U.S., seem like much ado about nothing.
However, your perspective might change — as mine did — when you learn that the birds that cats kill are overwhelmingly small and common, such as pigeons, sparrows, and robins, while the birds that the wind turbines and solar farms kill are large, rare, and threatened, like the Golden Eagle, Red-Tailed Hawk, and American Kestrel, a bird so magnificent that I named my daughter after it.
But aren’t such environmental impacts common to all forms of energy production?
Ivanpah solar farm, for instance, requires an astonishing 5,000 times more land, per unit of energy produced, than Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear plant, which has had no impact on its neighboring fish population, and whose tidal pools are some of the most pristine on the West Coast.
Just the Beginning?
Given how large the ecological impact of solar and wind farms has been, it’s surprising to remember that solar and wind still constitute just 1.3 and 6.3 percent of electricity in the U.S., and 1.3 and 3.9 percent of electricity globally.
Renewables advocates would like to see the two technologies grow exponentially — from today’s five percent globally to somewhere between 30 and 100 percent of our electricity supply.
What might the wildlife impacts of a six to 20-fold increase in solar and wind be?
Consider that it would take:
- 95 wind farms the size of Alta Wind Energy Center, the largest in the U.S. and second largest in the world, to produce one-quarter of California’s power.
- 93 solar farms the size of Ivanpah, which kills 6,000 birds annually and has killed hundreds of desert tortoises to date, to generate another quarter of the state’s power.
Would the impacts on birds and other wildlife increase one hundred-fold? Less? More? Nobody knows. Academic ecologists sometimes try to predict such things but the real world is too complex.
“Ivanpah is a bird sink — and an cautionary tale unfolding on public lands,” a representative from Audubon Society told The Los Angeles Times. “It continues to operate as though there’s an endless supply of birds to burn.”
Could these problems be avoided with better siting and technology innovation? The answer is “maybe a little sometimes” — but almost always at a very high cost.
For example, we can put solar collectors on roofs instead of spreading them across deserts — but doing so doubles their cost.
We could, theoretically, force wind developers to halt the blades of their wind turbines from spinning (and decapitating birds) but, according to the Audubon Society, “it’s highly experimental [and] none of it has been proven to work.”
Bird advocates point out that it takes 45 minutes to halt wind turbine blades from spinning, which may not be enough time to respond to incoming birds, like the condor.
And, even if they succeeded, the wind developers would receive less revenue from both ratepayers and taxpayers in the form of production subsidies, without which wind farms don’t get built.
Those economics might explain why wind developers have fiercely resisted efforts to change where they site their turbines — and why birds and bats keep dying.
“The wind industry and its proponents have contributed to this situation themselves,” the American Bird Conservancy says, “downplaying its impacts on wildlife while simultaneously overselling the industry’s ability to mitigate associated problems,”
Scientists and Conservationists to the Rescue?
It’s no surprise that resistance to renewable energy projects is coming from wildlife biologists, conservationists, and birders.
“To prevent extinctions in the future,” argued novelist and birder, Jonathan Franzen, in The New Yorker, “it’s not enough to curb our carbon emissions. We also have to keep a whole lot of wild birds alive right now.” [Emphasis in the original]
Franzen’s essay resonated. One month after it was published in 2015, the American Bird Conservancy told CBS News, bluntly, “Wind turbines are among the fastest-growing threats to our nation’s birds.”
Michael Hutchins of the Conservancy says “industry players have worked behind the scenes to try to minimize state and federal regulations and to attack important environmental legislation, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act… Attempts to manage the wind industry with voluntary as opposed to mandatory permitting guidelines are clearly not working.”
In 2013, federal wildlife officials took the unprecedented step of telling private companies that they will not be prosecuted,” The Los Angeles Times reported, “for inadvertently harassing or even killing endangered California condors,” a violation of federal law.
The big environmental organizations appear unmoved. After acknowledging that the expansion of off-shore wind turbines in Germany “could be grave and even lead to the extinction of individual species,” including the Harbor Porpoise, Friends of the Earth-Germany (BUND) said, cheerily, “But things could also not be that bad after all. We simply do not know yet.”
Such a shift may already be underway. “[R]enewable energy sources like wind and solar,” a group of 75 conservation biologists led by Australian ecologist Barry Brook wrote in 2014, “face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use… Nuclear power — being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources — could make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution.”
But time is running out. As the wildlife death toll from renewables rises, California is moving forward with plans to close Diablo Canyon and replace it with a mixture of natural gas and electricity from — you guessed it — new solar and wind farms.