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.