Energy from wind turbines: Is it ‘for the birds’?

The development of wind energy in Seneca County has become a hotly contested issue. My goal in this piece is to provide an unbiased, scientific perspective on the environmental impacts of wind energy that I believe is lacking in the current debate.

All sources in this article are from scientific publications that have been extensively reviewed by other scientists. This article is being written in my personal capacity as an assistant professor of ecology at Heidelberg University. The views and opinions represented here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official view of Heidelberg.

Let’s get a few things out of the way: yes, I do support wind development in Seneca County; no, there are no plans to put wind turbines near my backyard; and no, wind energy is not a silver bullet for the environment or local economy.

Wind energy will provide many local and global benefits including clean(er) energy, local economic growth and jobs. These benefits, in my mind, far outweigh the negatives.

Any form of energy, including fossil fuels (coal, natural gas) but also renewables like solar power (PV panels), hydropower (dams) and wind energy (turbines), has substantial negative environmental (and economic) impacts that should be evaluated. On the environmental side, which is the focus of this article and my expertise, the primary issue is that wind turbines kill large numbers of bats and birds.

While research must continue to assess the impacts of wind turbines on bats, turbines can mostly avoid bats by properly siting turbines away from prime bat habitat, only running at high wind speeds when bats are not flying (one of the common reasons why turbines you see are not rotating), and halting turbines during bat migratory periods.

Fortunately, the wind industry has committed to these mitigation strategies in partnership with bat conservation organizations, and will hopefully commit in the near future to even more conservative cut-off wind speeds and continued research to conserve our furry friends.

Similar to bats, the number of birds killed by wind turbines is notoriously difficult to study and varies by location and wind turbine design. With that large uncertainty in mind, estimates suggest that approximately one bird is killed per 3.7 gigawatthours (Sovacool 2012). Based on average usage rates from the US Energy Information Administration, this equates to approximately one bird killed for over 300 households supplied by wind energy per year and a high-end estimate of bird mortality in the U.S. and Canada totaling 375,000 birds each year (Loss et al. 2013; Zimmerling et al. 2013).

Bald eagles are almost never killed by wind turbines, with only six deaths documented nationwide between 1997 and 2012 (Pagel et al. 2013). Certainly, more bald eagles are killed and never reported; however, these numbers suggest wind turbines have very little direct impact on our national bird.

While it is unfortunate that any birds are killed while harnessing the wind, mortality rates due to wind power generation pale in comparison with other causes of death. For example, 6.8 million birds die from collisions with communication towers in the U.S. and Canada each year (Longcore et al. 2012), while 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion bird deaths per year just in the U.S. are attributed to cats (Loss et al. 2013). This suggests that we can increase our current wind energy infrastructure by more than 3,000 times before reaching the rate of direct bird mortalities due to cats.

Fossil fuels and nuclear energy generation are also responsible for bird deaths. Estimates suggest that fossil fuels are responsible for directly killing one bird per 5 GWh of energy (Sovacool 2012), slightly less than are killed by wind turbines.

However, these mortality rates don’t factor in any environmental and wildlife damage due to pollution or climate change, impacts which are and will continue to be drastic. Nuclear power generation, which is environmentally beneficial because it does not contribute to greenhouse gases and climate change, unfortunately kills more than double the birds attributed to wind turbines (Sovacool 2012).

If birds are your major concern, altogether these numbers suggest money may be better spent investing in spaying and neutering cats rather than fighting wind energy development. This in addition to the fact that, compared to fossil fuels, wind turbines will not significantly impact air quality, will not contribute to climate change (and additional bird and bat mortality as a result), do not have large footprints and therefore have minimal impacts on wildlife habitat and agricultural lands, and will produce energy as long as the wind blows.

While I cannot argue with those who believe wind turbines are unsightly or are concerned with property values, I do believe wind is a necessary cog (along with several other alternative energy sources) for us to minimize our impact on the environment and ensure a high quality of life moving forward.

Sources

Longcore T, Rich C, Mineau P, MacDonald B, Bert DG, et al. (2012) An Estimate of Avian Mortality at Communication Towers in the United States and Canada. PLOS ONE 7: e34025

Loss S.R., Will, T., Marra, P.P. (2013) The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States. Nat. Commun. 4: 1396

Pagel, J. E., Kritz, K. J., Millsap, B. A., Murphy, R. K., Kershner, E. L., Covington, S. (2013) Bald eagle and golden eagle mortalities at wind energy facilities in the contiguous United States. Journal of Raptor Research, 47(3), 311-315.

Sovacool, B.K. (2012) The avian and wildlife costs of fossil fuels and nuclear power, Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences, 9:4, 255-278

Zimmerling, J.R., Pomeroy, A.C., d’Entremont, M.V., Francis, C.M. (2013) Canadian Estimate of Bird Mortality due to Collisions and Direct Habitat Loss Associated with Wind Turbine Developments. Avian Conserv. Ecol. 8(2): 10

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