Don’t Be Fooled On Wind Power And Birds

If anyone on the right has expressed concern about the Keystone XL pipeline’s potential impact on migratory birds, I missed it. The view there on Keystone is full speed ahead, send the dilbit on down – even as government scientists and conservation groups [PDF] raise questions about how the pipeline might harm birds and habitat.

This is an important little fact to keep in mind as you consider the contretemps that has arisen concerning wind power and birds. As part of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s rulemaking process for wind energy development, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a mandatory permitting system for the operation of wind projects and mitigation of their impacts on migratory birds. The industry supports voluntary guidelines.

wind power and birds

image via Shutterstock

This dustup is sure to excite the wind haters greatly, and as the story unfolds be prepared to hear them use the ABC as a tool to bash wind. (Oops, here they go already!) They’ve been doing it for years, and one of their favorite pastimes is to repeat the ABC’s contention that the government says 440,000 birds are killed in turbine collisions every year.

That’s a big number – until you consider that in the U.S., perhaps a billion birds are killed each year in collisions with building windows, according to Daniel Klem Jr. of the Acopian Center for Ornithology at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. This is a high-side estimate, for sure, but even the ABC puts the building figure at 100 million.

Then there are communication towers. Millions of birds fall prey to these structures scattered across the landscape. In a January 2011 article in Birding magazine, Paul Kerlinger and two coauthors concluded: “As of early 2010, we estimated that approximately 100,000 birds are killed by wind turbines each year in the U.S., based on an average of about 3+ birds per turbine per year times 30,000 turbines. This number of fatalities does not appear to be causing significant impacts to populations of the species involved, although as more turbines are erected, cumulative impacts must be considered. If the number of birds estimated to be killed by communication towers (4–50 million) is correct, towers cumulatively may kill 40–500 times more birds than do wind turbines currently operating in the U.S.”

It’s worth pointing out, as well, that the 440,000 figure might not be the government’s final word on the subject. While the ABC petition [PDF] states that the Fish & Wildlife Service “estimated in 2009 that at least 440,000 birds were killed each year by wind turbines” (emphasis added), that isn’t quite true. Here’s what the Fish & Wildlife’s go-to man on turbine-bird interaction, Albert Manville, wrote in 2009 [PDF]:  “While the wind industry currently estimates that turbines kill 58,000 birds per year in the U.S., the Service estimates annual mortality at 440,000 birds…. Until a robust, scientifically rigorous cumulative impacts analysis is performed, we will not know with a high degree of certainly the true level of mortality. Admittedly, it still is relatively small.”

Now, this is not to say that the wind industry’s impact on birds (and bats, and other wildlife) should not be scrutinized. It might even be that the ABC’s call for regulation by the federal government should be heeded, even if the American Wind Energy Association doesn’t think so [PDF]. Because no matter what the bird-kill number is, this is true: Wind power is growing and we don’t fully understand its environmental impact. It might be relatively small, but on top of all the other threats to birds, it could be pivotal.

But let’s be clear: This isn’t an argument about whether wind power development should proceed, as many on the right want you to believe. This is about how wind-power should proceed. Even the ABC says it “recognizes that properly sited and operated wind energy projects may be an important part of the solution to climate change, a phenomenon that indisputably poses an unprecedented threat to species and ecosystems.” Countless conservation organizations, including the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, echo that view.

Just last month we reported on a study done by the Nature Conservancy’s Kansas chapter that suggests that conservation goals could be met while putting to use as much as 48 percent of the state for wind power generation, potentially yielding 478 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity. This was part of a larger Nature Conservancy research project, called “Win-Win for Wind and Wildlife: A Vision to Facilitate Sustainable Development,” that found that with a coordinated approach and careful siting, the nation’s goal of getting 20 percent our electricity from wind by 2030 “can be achieved in places already impacted by human activities.” Another hopeful sign: In Northern California, NextEra Energy Resources is replacing and resiting turbines in the Altamont Pass. According to the local Audubon chapter, this will reduce bird impacts by a whopping 80 percent.

It’s not clear yet that it will take stiff regulation to get the wind industry to grow in a way that minimizes environmental degradation, but if it does, so be it. In the meantime, let’s not allow ideologically driven opponents of clean energy development to hijack the bird-wind issue. Their concern, as on Keystone and as always, is protecting fossil-fuel interests, not wildlife.

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.

  • Dan Brekke

    Good issue for discussion. Is there a formal connection between the bird lovers and “the ideologically driven opponents of clean energy development” (those whose concern is “as always, protecting fossil-fuel interests.”)

    • Pete Danko

      Dan, I haven’t found any reason to doubt *these* bird lovers — the American Bird Conservancy — though I confess I haven’t spent a lot of time digging into that angle. What’s become clear to me even in the short time since I wrote this piece a couple of days ago is that wind and birds is a confused, potentially volatile legal situation, and all parties are looking for clarity and a path forward. Is the ABC’s solution the right one? That’s a subject I’m looking forward to exploring. Stay tuned!

    • Dan, I haven’t found any reason to doubt *these* bird lovers — the American Bird Conservancy — though I confess I haven’t spent a lot of time digging into that angle. What’s become clear to me even in the short time since I wrote this piece a couple of days ago is that wind and birds is a confused, potentially volatile legal situation, and all parties are looking for clarity and a path forward (and, of course, to some degree, all parties have their own vested interests). Is the ABC’s solution the right one? That’s a subject I’m looking forward to exploring. Stay tuned.

  • Anonymous

    There are solutions now available and developing to manage the bird and bat risk which include bird-bat radar-based systems that will detect risk and automatically idle all or select turbines. (seeu00a0

    • Then why is the wind industry opposed to mandatory rules?

      • El Rucio: In comments to an earlier draft of the proposed rules, the American Wind Energy Association explicitly addressed the mandatory vs. voluntary question. They said: “The final guidelines should remain voluntary in recognition of the fact that: (1) expanded conservation benefits for issues like habitat fragmentation and non-federal trust species would not be covered under a regulatory program; (2) USFWS does not have adequate resources to implement a mandatory program; and (3) USFWS does not have the legal authority to implement a mandatory program.”u00a0

        • Thanks, Pete. It sounds like they’re saying that if the rules were mandatory, they wouldn’t be followed and other mitigation efforts wouldn’t be made u2014 which doesn’t argue well for leaving them as voluntary!

  • You suggest the main concern: that wind energy is still in its relative infancy, so its unique impacts will only grow.nnThis discussion about birds should not obscure the concern about bats, which even the wind industry acknowledges as a serious problem.

    • That’s a good point, El Rucio. Really, in the future the discussion should be cast as “wind power and wildlife.”

  • Tess

    The construction of windmills kills all biological diversity and the Earth’s ecosystems, all the reasons man exists. u00a0Windmills consume vast tracts of the Earth’s natural, life creating and sustaining physical body or ecosystems for low energy yield. u00a0Eco-literate scientists maintain man is suicidal when he kills ecosystems — for any reason! u00a0Ecosystems are the homes/habitats, food, shelter, cover and nurseries for all the strands in the web of all life and not just birds and bats but all biological diversity.nnI have witnessed immense tracts of desert ecosystem, slathered over in California with these planet killing monsters, and nothing could survive in that ecological holocaust! u00a0Not birds, bats, big horn sheep or the desert tortoise. u00a0They might as well have caused an immense oil spill on the surface of the Earth. u00a0Killing ecosystems kills the Earth, regardless. u00a0And, kills man’s life creating and supporting cycles, functions and systems.nnSolar and wind should never rape the Earth; they should be constructed on already dead planet, where people actually live! u00a0Killing ecosystems and their biological diversity isn’t clean and green, it’s as brown and dead as the surface of Mars! u00a0

  • Barry Doyle

    Peter are you paid by the American Wind Energy Association as you frame of logic is out of whack! In a Radio Tagged Study of Golden Eagles in California 37% were killed by wind turbines. How much to you get paid to write thisu00a0drivel?

    • Pete

      How much am I paid to write this drive? Not enough, my friend, not enough.

      That’s a shocking statistic, 37 percent. In what time period? Over what terrain? Please do send me a citation. I would love to read the study and write a story about it. No wind power plant should be cited or operated in a way that results in that level of destruction to a protected species.

  • Barry Doyle

    I would to have a discussion how the billions wasted on wind and solar could save more energy by improving effiecency except your masters wouldn’t make the billions they are now doing it the smart way…now would they. Can any green person disagree that a massive 400 blade spinning at 150 mph is worse than improvements in energy usage?

    • Pete

      Energy efficiency is important, and we should invest in it. But I’m not convinced it alone holds the answer. I fear the Jevons paradox: as we make our powered devices more efficient, we tend to use them more, and more of them. Consider the case of refrigerators. In recent years, many households have purchased vastly more efficient refrigerators–and yet these households are using more energy for refrigeration. How can this be? Well, many of them have not discarded the old fridge. They now have two fridges. The new, energy-efficient one, and the old one. See:u00a0 details. One way to combat this tendency, researchers believe, is with full exploitation of smart grid/meter/home technology combined, perhaps, with social media. Research shows that giving consumers feedback on their energy use, and especially having comparison with the usage of friends, family and neighbors, can inspire large energy use reductions.