Blades, birds and bats: Wind energy and wildlife not a cut-and-dried issue

  • Golden eagles fly near wind turbines at Altamont Pass, where a recent study found there are at least 1,000 bird fatalities a year

    John Gilardi photo, used by permission of Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The Winds of Change."

If you think wind energy is a good alternative to fossil fuels, but you also care about wildlife, you’ve probably worried about the possible "lawnmower" effect of spinning wind turbines on birds and bats.

At least some of that concern is justified. In the mid-1980s, people reported seeing piles of dead raptors at Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area near San Francisco, one of the nation’s first wind farms. When a Sierra Club employee later described wind turbines as the "Cuisinarts of the sky," newspapers went wild with reports of hashed-up hawks, and opponents of alternative energy seized on this new excuse to halt wind-farm development. Another alarm was set off in 2003, when it came to light that turbines at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in West Virginia had killed about 2,000 bats in a two-month period.

Wind turbines do kill birds and bats, but the scale of damage varies widely, depending on several factors, including the wind farm’s location, its turbine design, and the species of birds and bats that live nearby or migrate through. However, compared to the many other ways that humans kill winged animals, turbine blades generally cut only a sliver out of the pie.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, wind turbines account for only one out of every 5,000 to 10,000 human-caused bird kills nationwide. Many bird deaths are caused by communications towers, automobiles and domestic cats. The worst killers are glass windows: Researchers estimate that every year, 900 million birds die after slamming into these invisible barriers. But most of these victims are common city birds like pigeons and house sparrows.

Certain wind farms, like California’s Altamont, do pose a significant threat to raptors. Altamont, a cluster of wind projects begun in 1981, was built "in the absolute worst place to put a wind farm," says Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center is suing Altamont to force it to replace many of its older, less-efficient turbines with fewer and taller powerhouses; this would reduce the blade gantlet, Miller says, and at the same time increase energy production.

But Laurie Jodziewicz, communications and policy specialist for the American Wind Energy Association, says Altamont is unique. Not only is the wind farm located in the middle of a major migration route, it has 7,000 turbines that spin at the same elevation at which hunting raptors normally soar. Modern wind farmers have learned from Altamont, and now try to build outside bird migration routes, minimizing habitat destruction by choosing areas that have already been altered by industry. And the new cylindrical towers are harder for birds to nest on than the old ladder-like structures.

The U.S. currently generates only about one-half of 1 percent of its energy from wind, according to Jodziewicz. Comparing the new wind technology to other sources of bird mortality — such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the 1990s, which killed an estimated 500,000 birds — she says, "Even if the U.S. got all its energy from wind, the percentage of birds killed by turbines would be small."

Merlin Tuttle, executive director of Bat Conservation International, says scientists know almost nothing about the relationship between bats and wind energy, except that the wind farms reporting high numbers of dead bats are located close to forested areas, which are used by certain migratory bats. Some researchers speculate that the bats’ sonar may perceive the turbines’ rotating blades as flying insects. But so far, he says, wind energy companies are reluctant to give bat biologists the permits they need to research turbine-related bat kills.

Until scientists do more research, new wind farms may not know how to be bat-friendly. Even so, Ed Arnett, a conservation scientist with Bat Conservation International, believes that "wind energy is a great thing," and notes that better siting and turbine design may solve the bat-blade dilemma.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...