Bird Deaths Haunt Wind Energy

Interior Dept. puts forth plan

Ken Silverstein | Apr 02, 2012

Share/Save  

Environmentalists are facing a conundrum: To fight green energy projects that they see as detrimental to their cause or to work with the developers and the authorities to minimize damages. The U.S. Department of Interior has made some suggestions that it thinks will help alleviate bird deaths associated with wind energy.

The Obama administration has placed a high value on wind energy, as well as other sustainable fuels. But it has run into conflicts when it has tried to permit such projects that affect rare birds and other wildlife. Through this latest initiative, the administration is working with all stakeholders to locate from the start those places in which there would be potentially deal-killing conflicts.

Bird and wildlife advocates are split. Most are satisfied with the proposals that have been in the making for three years, noting that their interests will get a seat at the table as the rules progress further. The rest are dissatisfied that the issuance is only “voluntary,” meaning that the litigation will still flow. Among the groups that discussed the matter with officials from the federal government are the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy and the Defenders of Wildlife.

“These first-ever federal guidelines are a game-changer and a big win for both wildlife and clean energy,” says David Yarnold, chief executive of the Audubon society. “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.”

The guidelines, which have taken effect, provide a structured and scientific approach for developers and the associated regulators to find viable wind sites, according to the Interior Department. Their mutual goal is to assess, mitigate and monitor any adverse effects wind power projects might have on wildlife and their habitat. The agency is emphasizing the voluntary rules do not encroach on the federal laws that now exists: Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The American Wind Energy Association says that it has 47,000 megawatts of installed capacity. Public comments it has filed with the Interior Department say that its members have surpassed the requirements under current law, all to minimize the effect its turbines have on birds and their habitat.

“The industry is not interested in, and has never asked for, a free pass when it comes to wildlife,” says the document. “In fact, it has taken quite the opposite tack.”

Optimal Sites

The wind group has said, in previous filings, that less than 1 percent of all human-caused eagle deaths are the result of wind turbines. More than half of all accidents involving birds, generally, are because they fly into power lines. One news story cites a 2008 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stat that 440,000 bird deaths occur each year because of wind farms -- something that wind energy advocates say is inflated and difficult to calculate.

Where’s all this playing out? Conservation groups have told California authorities that a proposed wind project there by NextEra Energy would kill off rare birds, including Golden Eagles and California condors. They want the turbines to be relocated and have filed a legal challenge asking for an environmental review.

Among the things they are asking for are radars that would be able to detect such rare species before they would collide with the massive turbines. The wildlife advocates say that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees with it that avian fatalities are a real concern with this NextEra proposal.

“There’s plenty of room in the state for both wind projects and the California condor to thrive,” says Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But if condors and wind turbines are going to coexist, those turbines need to be sited carefully and measures have to be taken to minimize the risk that condors will be killed. Unfortunately, this project fails to do that.”

Relocating a massive wind or solar project is not that simple, however. Such facilities are typically built on the outskirts where large plots of land exists and where the wind and the sun can be easily captured. Wind speeds need to average 14.7 miles per hour as well as be able to interconnect with transmission systems. Solar regions, meanwhile, must have abundant sunshine and also have the same ability to connect with the transmission grid.

Green energy faces a number obstacles, not the least of which is coming from their own quarters. The Interior Department’s proposal seeks to minimize the conflict and if it is effective, it will be a positive step forward for wind and solar power.


EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

energybizinsider@energycentral.com


Related Topics

Comments

Wires and Bird Deaths

Hi Ken,
 
I always enjoy your column.  You do a good job at distilling complicated issues into a one minute article.
 
But, I cringed when I read this paragraph:
 
The wind group has said, in previous filings, that less than 1 percent of all human-caused eagle deaths are the result of wind turbines. More than half of all accidents involving birds, generally, are because they fly into power lines. One news story cites a 2008 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stat that 440,000 bird deaths occur each year because of wind farms -- something that wind energy advocates say is inflated and difficult to calculate.

As a person who permits power lines, the second sentence is the one that gets me.  The first sentence sets the tone that the discussion is about eagle deaths.  Then you say "More than half of all accidents involving birds, generally, are because they fly into power lines."  The reader will assume that half of all eagle accidents are from them running into power lines.  There is really no evidence that eagles run into power lines.  They have good vision and are very agile flyers.  Based on our review of the data we collect and from independent studies, birds that run into power lines are generally waterfowl with less acute vision and less agile flyers.
 
Even if you weren't talking about eagles in the second sentence it is incorrect.  The statement seems out of place and factually wrong.
 
Thanks again for your column.
 
Tom Hillstrom 
Xcel Energy | Responsible By Nature 
Supervisor, Siting and Permitting 
Minneapolis, MN 

Common sense and perspective...

I agree, as does most if not all of the wind industry does, that bird activity does need to be taken into account when siting a wind farm, but it also has to be kept in perspective.  Even at the 440,000 bird death as a result of wind turbines figure, this number pales in comparison to the other ways that birds get killed.

Domestic house cats hundreds of millions of birds each year in the US alone.  Glass doors and windows kill quite a few more.  Roads are also a mixed blessing for birds in that the transition areas that road ways create make excellent habitat for the animals that birds prey on, which puts them in the position of being killed by vehicles.

Also, as was pointed out in a previous comment, the design of wind turbines has been changed and they aren't nearly as attractive as nesting areas.

So, let's not be stupid and place wind farms on migratory paths, but let's not freak out either.  In the long run, the environmental benefit of wind energy will more than compensate for a relativilly low number of bird kills!

 

Bob "The Clean Energy Guy" Mitchell

typo

typo, paragraph 5:

"...the Balks and Golden Eagle Protection Act..." should be the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act

typo

typo, paragraph 5:

"...the Balks and Golden Eagle Protection Act..." should be the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act

Modern turbines vs Older

I think it would have been more constructive to include the reasons for concern as well as how they have been largely mitigated along with more actual statistics.

Early wind turbines had two "flaws" that casused bird deaths. First, the tripod structural mounts were great nesting areas brng in the bird to a dangerous area to begin with.

Second, the rotational velocity of the shorter blades made tehm more difficult to avoid when flying.

Both issues have been mitigated with huge wind turbines. The physical structure of teh tubular towers is not al all inviting to birds and the relatively slow moving larger blades are easier to avoid.  My understanding, and I can not quote the statistics, is that an order of maginitude reduction  in bird deaths has been observed due to these changes.