The birds and the blades


Driving through rolling hills into California’s Bay Area on Interstate 580, it's impossible to miss the thousands of windmills spinning in the incessant breeze off the Pacific. The Altamont wind farm, built during the 1970s oil crisis, was an early example of the West’s clean energy potential.

But there's a startling unintended consequence of all those whirling blades: they are really good at chopping up birds. Estimates vary, but some 4,700 birds are killed at Altamont every year, according to a California Energy Commission study, including between 75 and 100 federally protected golden eagles. Altamont has become the poster child for poor site planning in the wind industry.

National estimates show between 88,000 and 320,000 birds killed by wind turbines every year, according to the American Bird Conservancy (Compare that to between 100 million and 1 billion birds killed by collisions with windows).

It's this collateral damage of the wind power-wildlife paradox that U.S. Fish and Wildlife hopes to reduce with new draft land-based wind power guidelines released last Tuesday, part of the Obama administration's efforts to encourage alternative energy development and clarify regulations. The voluntary guidelines, updating a 2003 version, are open to public comment for 90 days.

Lessons learned from Altamont help shape the new guidelines. They aim to prevent development in sensitive areas, reduce direct animal collisions with wind turbines and lessen habitat fragmentation from road construction. The guidelines encourage cooperation with local regulators, study of wildlife use in site selection, ongoing monitoring of bird impacts and seasonal shutdowns to avoid bird migrations. More novel solutions include radar bird detection that signals nearby turbines to shut down while the birds pass through, and using sound and lasers to scare off birds and bats.

Of particular concern are federally protected bald and golden eagles. Though Fish and Wildlife is mandated to protect eagles and only authorize actions "compatible with the goal of stable or increasing breeding populations," the agency also recognizes that eagles will continue to be killed by wind turbines. A 2009 rule allows the agency to issue permits for "non-purposeful take" of eagles when deaths "cannot practicably be avoided." The new guidelines help wind power companies through development of an Eagle Conservation Plan to prevent further carnage.

More than a dozen environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society, sent a letter to President Obama last Wednesday lauding his administration's efforts to promote green power and voicing support for similar measures outlined in the new guidelines.

But the voluntary nature of the guidelines concerns some bird advocates. “We had hoped that at the end of this multi-year, Interior Department process, we would see mandatory regulations that would provide a reasonable measure of restraint and control on a potentially very green energy source, but instead we get voluntary guidelines,” said Mike Parr, vice-president of the American Bird Conservancy, in a press release. "The guidelines ask the wind industry to do the right things, but there is no reason to believe that any will happen with any consistency."

Meanwhile, the wind power industry has its own misgivings about the guidelines, casting the industry's impact on birds as insignificant compared to other hazards (buildings, cars, power lines, cats, etc.) "We are concerned that portions of these proposals will negatively impact development from the standpoint of commercial viability and lack the flexibility to allow industry professionals to best site projects in the most efficient manner while continuing to achieve the shared goal of protecting wildlife and their habitats," said John Anderson, Director of Siting Policy at the American Wind Energy Association, in a press release.

Late last year, the largest wind energy company at Altamont settled a lawsuit with environmental groups to replace or retire 2,400 old wind turbines for newer, less lethal models, with the goal of reducing bird kills by 50 percent.

Perhaps the new wind power guidelines will help prevent such legal tussles in the future, but for now it seems the debate over who owns the wind blows on.

Nathan Rice is a HCN intern.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Foide.

Bob Johns
Bob Johns
Feb 14, 2011 01:48 PM
Good story. I wish we at American Bird Conservancy had updated our web pages before the story came out to reflect the most recent credible report on bird fatalities at wind farms in the U.S. That report comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and it estimated that in 2009, when the U.S. was producing 25 GW of wind generated electricity, that up to 440,000 birds were being killed annually. While we are very concerned about bird mortality at the 25 GW level, we are even more concerned about how many bird deaths will occur when we increase U.S. wind capacity to 300 GW (12 times higher) in order to meet 2030 goals of 20 percent of our electricity being generated by wind. Right now, there are no credible reports that estimate bird deaths in 2030 but it would not seem unreasonable to expect a bird mortality number north of 1,000,000 per year.
As your article points out, the Federal Government has released draft, voluntary wind-energy guidelines. During the public comment period on these proposed voluntary guidelines, ABC will urge that that the Department of the Interior enact mandatory standards that the industry must follow. We do not believe that energy industries should be able to choose whether or not to consider bird impacts.
Your article references the recent lawsuit regarding the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in California. There is perhaps not another example that better illustrates that getting the wind industry to do the right thing voluntarily may be anything but easy. Very recent studies say that approximately 7,600-9,300 birds are killed at Altamont Pass each year, including 55-94 Golden Eagles, 475-477 American Kestrels, 253-433 Red-tailed Hawks, and 714-718 Burrowing Owls. Of great concern is that after seven years of being challenged by various conservation groups to make meaningful changes there to reduce bird mortality, it finally took a lawsuit settlement to make it happen. Given that this all happened very recently, it certainly suggests to us that this is how the wind industry will do the right thing in the future if the concept of “voluntary” is officially and formally stamped on each page of the things they ought to be required to do.

Micki Vardell
Micki Vardell
Feb 15, 2011 02:02 PM
I am very concerned about the birds, bats, and bugs which all make up a huge part of a healthy eco-system. I live with a 500 kV line on my property and every year we find birds such as geese and pelicans wounded or dead from colliding with the lines. I have witnessed it happen. How many cases like mine are not reported? Now every city, county and state in the union is on a ban wagon for wind farm developement. All of this new spending just causes more dept for consumers. With every wind farm comes more power lines. How much more debt can consumers pay before it affects their business and livelihoods? Many states if not all are talking about adding multiple high voltage power lines to expand or improve the grid. I believe this will have a devastating affect of the avairy. It will most likely jam the grid rather than improve it. Why is it that renewable energy is not solor at the source in an effort to reduce everyone's costs? Doctors now say that the turbines are affecting people so what affect will they have on our wildlife? I can not see that wind farms are the answer to a responsible renewable energy plan. They are not sustainable, they are hugely subsidized and cause environment and health problems.
This infrastructure will cost billions if not trillions on something that isn't worth it and people can not afford. Every expense the utility company spends will be transfered to their customers. Every job that is created will reflect on your billing statement. They say for every green job created 2.2 regular jobs will be lost. Do the math. It makes sense. If the utility companies spend 10 billion in infrastructure and creates a few jobs doing it then it has to be paid by the consumers. It's not free! So is this wind power really free. NO! Watch for the cost of the wind farms, transmission lines, substations(infrastructure)and new jobs created on your upcoming statements. Other countries like Spain, Canada and Europe are complaining of the extreme rate hikes and poor economy. Take a look at these videos.[…]/xzh1xj5[…]bL-x-sw&feature=related[…]LZLqIH4&feature=related[…]/[…]/