Energy

Stop the Spin: Turbines Less Deadly Than Fossil Fuels

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As wind power spins forward in the United States — the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm is the first offshore wind-energy facility in the country — the giant turbine blades that generate energy are often blamed for the death of birds and bats.

Turbines certainly do kill flying creatures, but how does this oft-maligned form of renewable energy stack up against other sources that are used to power our society? Plenty of research still needs to be conducted — especially concerning bat mortality caused by energy production — but most of the research already done shows fossil fuels are more lethal than spinning blades.

North American wind turbines kill an estimated 140,000 to 328,000 birds annually, according to a 2013 study. Another 2013 study claimed every year 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats are killed by wind turbines. A 2014 report claims turbines kill between 214,000 and 368,000 birds annually.

The peer-reviewed 2014 study by two federal scientists and the environmental consulting firm Western EcoSystems Technology Inc., however, found that number is small compared with the estimated 6.8 million fatalities from collisions with cell and radio towers. The study’s authors estimated that on an annual basis less than 0.1 percent of bird populations in North America die from collisions with turbines.

Collisions with windows, on the other hand, kill between 365 million and 988 million birds in the United States annually.

“Properly sited wind turbines are relatively bird friendly, especially when compared to fossil fuels,” according to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). “However, they are far from benign.”

The Virginia-based organization has noted that wind turbines and their associated infrastructure, notably power lines and towers, are among the fastest-growing threats to birds and bats in the United States and Canada. At the end of 2016, there were more than 52,000 operating, commercial-scale, land-based wind turbines in the United States, according to the ABC, producing about 66,000 megawatts of power.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to kill any bird protected by the act, even if the death is incidental, such as being struck by a spinning turbine blade, killed during a mountaintop mining explosion, or suffocated in an oil spill. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act recommends that to avoid eagle deaths companies should seriously consider where they site energy projects.

Wind-energy development, like all energy projects and infrastructure, can contribute to habitat loss, which can have significant impacts on birds, bats and other wildlife.

The ABC recommends “bird-smart” wind-energy development that ensures turbines are sited away from bird-collision risk areas; employs effective and tested mitigation to minimize bird fatalities; conducts independent, transparent, post-construction monitoring of bird and bat deaths; and calculates and provides fair compensation for the loss of ecologically important, federally protected birds.

Six decades ago hydroelectric power was celebrated as a source of renewable energy. Hydroelectric power includes both massive hydroelectric dams and the smaller mill dams that once powered the Industrial Revolution, most notably in New England. Now, many dams are being torn down because of their unintended environmental and wildlife impacts, such as changing ecosystems and impeding the path of migratory fish.

A bigger problem for birds and bats is the continued burning of fossil fuels. A 2014 National Audubon Society report noted that hundreds of bird species in the United States, such as bald eagles, are at “serious risk” because of climate change.

A 2009 study using U.S. and European data on bird deaths estimated the number of birds killed per unit of power generated by wind and fossil fuel sources. It concluded that wind facilities are responsible for between 0.3 and 0.4 fatalities per gigawatt-hour of electricity, while fossil fuel power power plants are responsible for 5.2 fatalities per gigawatt-hour.

Another study, published four years later, found that wind turbines kill 0.27 birds per gigawatt-hour, nuclear plants 0.6, and fossil fuel power plants 9.4.

Bat deaths attributed to wind turbines aren’t as well documented, but limited research has shown this renewable-energy source does have an impact. In Rhode Island, for instance, turbine owners have reported dead bats at the base of their structures.

Besides the dangers spinning blades pose for the only mammals that can fly, a 2011 study found that bats can succumb to the pressures created when turbine blades pass through the air, a phenomenon known as barotrauma.

While bats normally live for a long time, they, like sharks, are slow reproducers, meaning their populations rely on high adult survival rates.

All energy production comes with costs, especially to ecosystems and wildlife. Source and siting should be about making decisions based on more than just price and profit.

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  1. Much like people who ascribe to the replacement theory of having only 2 children for less environmental impact, you completely ignore the additive effects. If we stop all gas production at the moment wind turbines come into existence, then, yes, we may see decreased effects (barring the fact that we just haven’t studied what wind power infrastructure at scale would do to wildlife movement, habitat fracturing, etc). But fossil fuels is just one of many impacts on wildlife and their habitat, so you have to ADD the impacts of wind power at scale, which, again, we don’t even really understand yet. For bats and some bird populations, it may just be a cut too far towards unsustainable population declines. As White Nose Syndrome sweeps across the nation from both sides and habitat loss from development (including green energy infrastructure) AND climate change, we can’t treat sustainable energy as if it isn’t deeply impactful. Especially when the industry continues to drag their heels on anything other than the lightest voluntary regulation around bats.

  2. Hundreds of thousands of birds killed by turbines annually is a reminder there is no such thing as "clean energy" and its best to use less and reduce demand thru efficiency, a stronger conservation ethic, and a reduced rate of human population growth.

  3. These arguments are so old hat. One commenter has it right. All bird and bat kills are cumulative, as admitted mt the late Michael Hutchins of ABC.

    Sadly the ornithological societies are not up on the actual kill rates. In the US alone, it is now known that we lose between 13-39 million. Not the 585,000 birds and 800,000 bats as purported by the USFWS.

    Additionally sad is that wind does not produce meaningful power; net zero world wide. What a scam.

  4. Certain uncommon, rare, threatened, or endangered species migrate in specific corridors. As areas get saturated with wind infrastructure, the cumulative effects will increase. Populations will be suppressed and there will be reductions in genetic diversity. All this combined with habitat change and other compounding effects will further diminish, extirpate, or eliminate species over time.

  5. Wind energy produces about 5 percent of all electricity world-wide (Denmark gets about 40% of their electricity from wind) so it’s currently producing a pretty significant amount of juice. Wind energy currently costs less to produce than electricity from coal and the price continues to drop every year. Wind energy’s impact on wildlife is far, far, far less than the impact from fossil fuel extraction. Coal mines cause habitat loss at a massive scale. They also dump mercury, cyanide, arsenic and other poisons into the rivers, killing fish and birds in numbers a wind turbine could never compare to. Coal ash spills and air pollution are also responsible for killing animals that live nearby. Factor in the overall impact of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels and you’re talking about killing, not just individual birds, but entire species and ecosystems. Comparing the impact on wildlife of wind turbines vs. fossil fuels is like comparing a bb gun to a hand grenade. It’s also relevant to note that wind farms can still be used for farming, grazing, recreation or conservation, unlike a tailings pond. Are there costs and impacts? Yes, of course there are but much less than the impacts of fossil fuels. To think otherwise is like a doctor saying "the patient has a broken toe so we might as well just kill them." You don’t pass on good solutions just because they’re not perfect.

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