An Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Birds or Wind Turbines?

So what do you do when your green principles start conflicting with one another? Do a lot of soul searching, then write a lot of press releases, apparently.

Here’s a conundrum: you believe that it’s impossible to craft a future of sustainable and green energy solutions without wind power in the mix. But you also believe that the avoidable death of one bird or bat is unacceptable. Do you support the installation of more wind turbines, whose blades can admittedly be bird choppers if installed in the “wrong” place and take steps to mitigate animal deaths? Or do you decide that no animal deaths are acceptable, throw up your hands and put your full support behind solar energy, hoping fiercely that no one figures out that lizards are frying themselves to death on solar arrays?

Certainly, it depends on exactly where you are on the animal-loving scale. Many supporters of wind energy believe that bird and bat deaths caused by wind turbines pale in comparison to animal suffering and death caused by pollution and potential climate change from fossil fuel sources.

In a documentary put together by the American Wind Energy Association (which of course has a bias, that’s understood), wind proponents decisively point out that fossil fuel burning, while not directly mincing up any birds, is the far greater threat.

Jack Clarke of Mass Audubon says, “The biggest threat to animals…the biggest threats to birds…is climate change. Rapid climate change.”

Do these people hate our featured and furred flying friends? Not at all, but they believe that projects can be sited in such a way to minimize bird and bat deaths.

“If projects are located in the right places, and the mitigation is correct, I think wind energy along with other sources of renewable energy could serve as mitigation against climate change and lessen the existing impacts we’re seeing day to day on our bird species,” said Clarke.

John Anderson, Director of Siting Policy for AWEA, said,“While the wind energy has identified that we do have impacts, we’re doing everything we possibly can to try and understand what those impacts are and find ways to further minimize them. We as an industry are doing far more than any other industry actually does. We hold ourselves to a higher standard than anyone else and and it’s all voluntary.”

A group known as the American Wind Wildlife Institute undercuts denouncers of the wind industry as bird murderers as ludicrous, pointing out that the wind energy policy is driven by environmentalists. Said Jan Blittersdorf of the Institute, “The origins of the wind industry was environmentalism. Those are people who founded this industry. So what you’ve got is a very strong ethic to do the right thing. So I have no doubt that the wind industry can solve this issue and that wildlife and wind can coincide together going forward.”

Wanted: Mr. Tibbles, The Number One Bird Murderer In America

Armed, dangerous and cute

Wind energy proponents don’t seem to be denying that wind turbines do cause bird and bat fatalities. While some vehement wind supporters point out that the bases of wind turbines are not littered with bird corpses, this is a silly argument: any location that produces heaps of freshly killed birds and other flying creatures is going to be closely monitored by scavenging wildlife, for whom the windfall (no pun intended) is like a free all-you-can-eat buffet. It would be disingenuous and dishonest to deny that turbines cause the death of birds – a lot of birds. What supporters DO say is that a) wind energy is worth it since the environmental damage caused by traditional energy solutions is the greater threat to wildlife; and b) wind turbines are the least of the average bird’s worries compared to all the other ways a bird can snuff it.

Wind siting expert Tom Gray points out that wind turbines are a drop in the bucket of the entire picture of human-caused avian mortality. Domestic cats kept as pets cause far more bird deaths – about one billion each year in the U.S. alone. Buildings and windows apparently cause 550 million bird deaths each year, cars cause 80 million, pesticides take the lives of 67 million birds each year, and radio and cell towers cause 4.5 million annual bird deaths, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wind turbines are estimated to cause between 10,000 and 40,000 bird deaths a year – about one-tenth of a percent of all “unnatural” (as in, caused by humans) bird deaths each year – yet few people are demanding the shut-down of radio and cell towers, the installation of bird-avoidance technology on automobiles or banning the ownership of domestic cats. (While I’m sure it can be argued that cat-related bird fatalities are not directly caused by humans, it’s humans who are breeding cats and keeping them as pets, increasing the feline population of the planet far beyond the number of naturally occurring wild cat species.)

In other words, if you carry a cell phone or live in a building, you’re already a bird murderer. If you keep a cat, you’re guilty of being an accomplice to bird murder (or possibly employing a hit man).

Turbine Siting Strategies

So can siting wind turbines properly cut down on the bird fatalities and make everyone happier? Many experts say “yes.”

While mountaintops are popular locations for wind turbines, they seem to be the most problematic locations for birds, particularly raptor species. And obviously, anywhere inside the traditional path of bird migrations is going to cause more deaths. But while it’s easy to say, “let’s locate wind turbines far away from the paths of migratory birds,” it’s not that easy to do. Wind turbines need to be located where the wind is. In fact, migratory birds and wind turbines tend to congregate in the same places for the same reason: the central corridor down the middle of the U.S. from north to south is like a wind highway for birds to move from breeding grounds in the north to their winter hang-outs around the Gulf of Mexico. A majority of the nation’s wind farms are located in this corridor, as well. The harder and more often the wind blows, the better the turbine works and the more power it creates. While locating a turbine at the bottom of a 100 foot hole in the ground might minimize bird deaths, it’s not going to be very effective at generating power.

Technologies to Prevent Bird Deaths

While many wind providers argue that the turbines need to go where the wind is, and if this leads to bird deaths, so be it, some say they are taking active steps to prevent bird deaths using technology.

There are a few companies working on monitoring and risk mitigation systems that can provide turbine operators with advanced warning that migratory birds are approaching from as great a distance as four to six miles way in a way that represents high “mortality risk conditions.” If a high-risk scenario is detected, the monitoring system can shut down the turbines quickly, bringing blade rotation down to less than one rpm within less than a minute, and to full stop within five minutes.

A company called DeTect produces an avian radar system called MERLIN that can operate autonomously, detecting flocks of approaching flying wildlife and automatically idle individual or groups of turbines until the animals pass and the risk is abated, at which time the system restarts the turbines. Other companies that build this kind of technology include dt bird and Accipiter Radar.

The MERLIN system is deployed at the Penascal Wind Power Project in Kenedy County, Texas (in that famous “bird migration” corridor), which operates 82 wind turbines, and other wind farms in Texas. It’s also used by wind projects in Wisconsin, Louisiana Scotland, Norway and South Africa.

So What About The Bats?

Lest anyone cry flying creature favoritism and discrimination, let’s talk about bats. Wind turbines are problematic for

The hoary bat, which is being disproportionately affected by turbines.

them, as well, particularly certain species of bats in the family of migratory tree bats. This kind of bat represents three quarters of wind-turbine bat deaths, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And with bats it’s not all about animal loving: wipe out certain species of bats and you eliminate their extreme usefulness as eaters of mosquitoes and other carriers of insect-borne diseases, which could have wider ranging human health consequences.

The weird part about bats is that, unlike birds, bats aren’t typically prone to crashing into other man-made structures such as buildings or cars, thanks to their on-board sonar systems. So is there something about the turbines that is actively attracting the bats?

Scientists have a theory that, since most bat/wind turbine fatalities occur during the bats’ migration and mating period, that there are bat behavioral issues at work and that something about the turbines feels sexy to bats. USGS scientists working out of the Fort Collins Science Center currently have a research project underway to determine why certain bats seem attracted to certain wind turbines at certain times of year, all in attempt to figure out a way to avert the deaths.

So Is Bird Concern A Cover for NIMBYism?

So is it really about the birds, or is it – like the vocal opponents of compact fluorescent bulbs who “suddenly” found themselves concerned about the minute amount of mercury the bulbs contain, despite never having expressed a single environmental opinion prior to the federal light bulb legislation – a convenient way to hide behind “not in my back yard” disease?

Roger Cohen of the New York Times thinks so. After all, says Cohen, how can anyone with an ounce of concern for wildlife support anything that will take the world off of the teat of dictators’ oil supplies and clean the air and land?

“Aaah, the poor bats!” parodies Cohen. “Give me oil from the mass-murderer Qaddafi or sweet-talking Saudis so long as I don’t have a dead bat or spooked horse on my conscience.”

Cohen writes, “According to a major study on Britain’s energy future published last year by the University of Cardiff, 82 percent of Brits are favorable to wind power. But try to put a wind turbine near someone’s backyard and all hell breaks loose. Planning permission for onshore wind farms now takes forever; a dwindling number — about a third — ever gets approval.”

I’m not intending to pick on the British. Americas are no better when it comes to finding virtuous fronts for their NIMBYism.

So are the birds being used as a front? In many cases, it would seem so. (Though to be fair, there are wildlife groups that fully support wind power as long as its exercised with some “bird smart” mandatory guidelines.)

And true animal lovers, don’t fret. I know there are people in the world who are so pro-animal they believe that no animal death is ever justified, not even by a cure for human disease or a cleaner environment. There are even some who actively advocate for voluntary human extinction (zero population growth) in order to leave the planet to animals, who after all don’t drive cars, use air conditioners or manufacture ping-pong tables in dirty factories. There are even those who believe that there’s no moral difference between the death of a child and the death of a squirrel. Those people are a tiny minority, however, and the “bird-death objection to wind turbines” movement seems larger than it would be if it were just animal rights purists or the defenders of endangered species of birds making the case. (And yes, I fully admit I do see a difference between the death of a sparrow and the death of an endangered golden eagle, for example. Call me a “birdist” if you must.)

So what’s the solution? Let’s build them far offshore, where they can’t hurt migratory birds or bats or, more importantly, annoy the residents of affluent communities who would happily buy billions of barrels of oil from some tinpot ruler who cuts off the heads of his subjects for fun, as long as it doesn’t ruin their property value. Right?

But we can’t that do, either. Offshore wind turbines apparently offend fish. Too bad there’s no wind on the moon.




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