Fact check: Spectator (U.K.) overlooks facts on wind power and wildlife

15 January 2013 by John Anderson John Anderson

The Spectator, a U.K. newspaper, recently carried an article that misrepresented wind power's effects on wildlife.

First, the Spectator article begins by citing, without question, a recent negative report on wind turbine design from the deceptively named U.K. anti-wind group Renewable Energy Policy Foundation.  While the report merits little attention because of its source, the European Wind Energy Association's (EWEA) response is carried here: Fact check: Study on turbine lifespan 'just more anti-wind propaganda', December 24, 2012. In addition:

Wind energy’s impacts must be viewed in context with other forms of human-caused impacts.  Wind energy is a clean energy source and one of the most compatible with wildlife.  A recent qualitative comparative life-cycle study shows that wind power is one of the least harmful energy sources for wildlife.  To illustrate this point, in 2009, Pandion Systems, Inc. (now Normandeau Associates), a leading environmental science research firm that works with both public and private sector clients, prepared a cradle-to-grave analysis (available at http://pandionsystems.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=LEb2TV1Bji0%3d&tabid=149) for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) of major energy types and their impacts on wildlife. The report covers coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, wind and hydropower.  As a cradle-to-grave comparative analysis, it covers all phases of electricity production, including extraction, transportation, construction, generation, transmission and distribution, and decommissioning.

The following table provides the criteria Pandion used to categorize the potential threats:


Following are the ratings Pandion provided for the various energy technologies on the threat scale:


As is clear from this chart, the impacts of wind energy on wildlife compare very favorably to the impacts of other energy technologies on the same.  Indeed, wind energy has the lowest impact of any of the technologies studied.  However, as with any other form of energy generation, some effect on wildlife and their habitats is unavoidable. Further, unlike the other forms of energy generation, all of which, as shown above, have a greater life-cycle cumulative effect on the natural and human environment, the wind industry has endeavored to further lessen its already limited impacts by taking a systematic approach to identifying potential impacts on birds, bats and other wildlife, and is engaged in initiatives aimed at reducing, if not eliminating, those impacts.

Wind farms are not a major source of bird mortality. While birds do occasionally collide with wind turbines at some sites, the facts are that wind energy will always be a vanishingly small factor in human-caused bird fatalities and that modern wind power plants are collectively far less harmful to birds than radio towers, tall buildings, airplanes, vehicles and numerous other human-made objects. A leading avian biological consulting firm, WEST Inc., recently reanalyzed the bird mortality rate at wind farms on behalf of the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) and presented the findings at the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative's bi-annual science meeting in November. Based on the results of comparable studies (which used similar methodologies, and calculated searcher efficiency and scavenger rates) at a total of 109 operating wind farms across the nation, the rate is estimated to be 2.4 birds per megawatt (MW). With some 51,000 MW of wind generation currently installed, that implies approximately 120,000 bird fatalities a year.  In contrast, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other organizations estimate that annual bird deaths from collisions with buildings range from 97 million to 976 million, 60 million or more may be killed by vehicles, and up to 2 million are killed in oil and wastewater pits. Further, a recent study by the American Bird Conservancy found that cats kill at least 500 million birds per year. The truth is that no matter how extensively it is developed, wind energy will always be a vanishingly small factor in human-caused bird fatalities.

No energy source—in fact, no human activity—has zero impact on the environment. As a clean energy source, however, wind energy is one of the most compatible with wildlife. Further, the wind industry does more than what is legally required to study, seek ways to reduce and mitigate for its impacts, and cooperate with federal and state regulatory agencies and conservation organizations to address their concerns than any other energy industry. The wind industry has a long history of proactively collaborating with the environmental community to address impacts and protect wildlife, and has worked extensively with the Service and major wildlife groups such as the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Sierra Club to develop national guidelines for wind farms aimed at reducing their impact on birds, bats, and other wildlife and their habitats. By way of example, in a press statement issued after the USFWS released the final version of its Wind Energy Guidelines, which the industry participated in developing over a four-year period, David Yarnold, President and CEO of Audubon, commented, “We know America needs more renewable energy and wind power is a key player in that mix. But conservationists can’t have it both ways: we can’t say we need renewable energy and then say there’s nowhere safe to put the wind farms… By collaborating with conservationists instead of slugging it out, the wind power industry gains vital support to expand and create jobs, and wildlife gets the protection crucial for survival. These federal guidelines are a game-changer and big win for both wildlife and clean energy.”

Wind farms are not a major source of eagle mortality.  Eagle fatalities only occur at a very small number of wind facilities across the country, and a significant mortality rate at individual sites is even rarer—primarily at the earliest wind farms in California, developed when siting practices were in their infancy and long before the interaction between eagles and turbines was understood. In fact, the data shows collision with turbines at modern wind farms is responsible for less than 2% of all reported human-caused golden eagle fatalities (and far less for bald eagles - with only three documented cases being reported nationally in the last 30 years), with vastly greater amounts attributed to power lines, vehicle strikes, lead poisoning, drowning in stock tanks, illegal shootings, etc.

That aside, the U.S. wind energy industry has demonstrated a willingness to work with the USFWS to address those instances where higher than anticipated eagle fatalities have occurred.  This includes the oldest facilities mentioned above, which have had historically the highest mortality rates, that are currently being “repowered” with new, larger turbines that have lower rpm and are spaced much farther apart than the original site layout.  Eagle experts who have worked closest to the issue for decades predict that fatalities may drop by as much as 80% when repowering is completed.  The wind energy industry is also working actively to avoid and reduce impacts at newly sited facilities.

It is important to understand that the golden eagle population, both in California and nationally, is not well defined. As a result, while some data indicates that populations, in some areas, are declining, this is inconclusive.  Further, no one knows what the cause of this decline is, but most scientists agree that the cause is most likely persistent drought conditions throughout the southwest, which many experts attribute to rapid climate change, that affect the availability of both drinking water and prey that can support a robust eagle population.

The wind industry proactively supports research on eagle populations and trends, their behavior, and sources of mortality and is working with the conservation community and USFWS to develop effective means to avoid, minimize and mitigate for any impacts. Further, at present, during the development of a wind farm the risk to eagles is evaluated and operators monitor for any impacts after construction, and mitigate for them should they occur.

Regarding bats, the wind industry is actively engaged in groundbreaking research to reduce bat collisions at wind farms. It has taken a systematic approach to identifying potential impacts on birds, bats, and other wildlife, and is engaged in initiatives aimed at reducing even the limited impacts it has today.

The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative (BWEC) was formed in 2003 by Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association, and the U.S. Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. BWEC researches the issue of bat interactions at wind energy facilities and is actively investigating several promising techniques that can be used to reduce them, such as acoustic deterrents and potential operational changes. Further, shortly after the emergence of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) as a significant threat to bat populations throughout the eastern states, and potentially North America, the wind industry proactively provided early leadership in funding WNS research to identify causes and possible treatments for the disease, as well as ways to prevent its further spreading to healthy bat populations.

In short, no energy source, or human activity for that matter, is completely benign. Regardless of how we decide to power our society, some impact will result. However, different energy sources have different impacts and some have especially acute, negative impacts on the health of our children, the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and wildlife populations. Given that wind power displaces other, more polluting forms of energy and has no negative attributes in the generation of energy as it does not require mining or drilling for fuel, uses virtually no water, and creates no air or water pollution, its net health and environmental impacts are strongly positive and it is without a doubt one of the most beneficial energy sources for wildlife and humans available today.

For more information on wind energy and wildlife, see http://www.awea.org/learnabout/publications/upload/Wind-Energy-and-Wildlife_May-2011.pdf

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