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Wind farms are good stewards to the environment and procedures are in place to protect wildlife populations.  In fact, wind farms can save as much as 600 gallons of water per megawatt of energy generated when compared to fossil fuel generation. Turbines also take up only a 1/2 -1 acre of land permanently and they emit no harmful C02 emissions.

On the contrary,  fossil-fuel generation disturbs the environment greatly. It wastes water, emits harmful CO2 gasses, and destroys the land through continuous mining.

In fact, 39% of today’s 6 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions originate from electricity generation.  Electricity generation accounts for 48% of our nation’s water withdrawals, amounting to nearly 738 billion liters per day. Coal mining is expected to destroy nearly 988,000 acres of land annually.   Also, coal mining, oil spills, acid rain, and oil platforms built along the Gulf Coast are all known causes of wildlife mortality in the U.S. A 2004 study in Nature forecast that a mid-range estimate of climate warming could cause 19% to 45% of global species to become extinct.

( Facts from the Department  of Energy’s 20% Wind Energy by 2030 Report)

Although concerns have been raised about the potential risk wind turbines have on wildlife, most notably bird and bat populations, the facts reveal that wind turbines today have little impact on wildlife if developers follow stringent siting standards.  The chart below shows that bird fatalities range from 100 million to 1 billion annually and it is estimated that for every 10,000 bird deaths, less than one death is caused by a wind turbine.

Out of 10,000 bird deaths, less than one is caused by a wind turbine.

The wind industry has taken this issue very seriously and mitigated problems related to the country’s earliest turbine installations. Improvements in technology and industry siting standards have drastically reduced impacts on bird and bat populations.

Standard industry siting standards have evolved over the last decade to steer clear of local migratory bird populations and topography, such as ridges, where birds frequent. The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, a coalition formed by the Bat Conservation International (BCI), the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy (NREL), conducts research that has helped change siting standards to avoid migratory paths.

Technological improvements have also helped protect bird populations. In fact, a new radar system, called the MERLIN SCADA system, uses advanced radar technology to detect bird migratory flight paths. This technology provides real-time bird mortality risk mitigation and is the first of its kind in the world. Most often, a bird’s flight path is well above the hub height of a turbine, meaning it will not be harmed. However, sometimes flight paths are lowered due to storms and high winds.  The MERLIN SCADA system can detect avian flight patterns in these instances and automatically activate mitigation reactions, including idling the turbines when appropriate. Scientists at Pattern Energy Group developed the MERLIN SCADA radar system and its first implementation occurred on a 283 megawatt wind farm along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The MERLIN SCADA system uses advanced radar technology to protect migratory birds.

Enhancements in turbine technology design have also helped significantly reduce the potential impact turbines may have on wildlife. Turbine towers are no longer designed as lattice structures that encourage bird nesting. Today’s turbine towers are sleek, steel mono-tubes and turbine blades are larger and spin slower.

Overall, the industry is very proactive in developing preventative measures to protect wildlife populations. Wind energy was established on ecological principles and values and its goal is to uphold these ideals in all aspects of its development.

Technological improvements, research, and stringent siting methodology speak to the industry’s commitment to environmental protection and safety.

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Amongst the small contingent of wind energy detractors, a recurring concern has been the risk imposed by turbines on various forms of wildlife, most specifically, avian wildlife. Some opposed to wind development have argued that spinning rotors of a wind turbine atop its tower pose a severe threat to wildlife. However, thanks in part to a new study addressing the subject, it appears that these arguments have been misguided at best and miss the bigger picture of the risks every human structure imposes on local wildlife populations. Conducted by the New York State Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the “Comparison of Reported Effects and Risks to Vertebrate Wildlife from Six Electricity Generation Types in the New York/New England Region” broke the pattern of looking solely at the wildlife impacts of wind energy by examining six major power generation methods to compare and contrast the risks of each energy source. An important guiding procedure of the study involved analyzing the entire project life cycle of energy sources: resource extraction, fuel transportation, facility construction, power generation, transmission and delivery, and decommissioning of the facility. The results showed that the renewable sources – wind and hydro – posed the least significant wildlife impacts when compared to their nonrenewable counterparts – coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear. Coal was found to exhibit the largest impact.

Although wind’s most notable wildlife impact is on birds and bats, the study points out that during the transmission and delivery stage, all forms of electricity generation pose moderate risks to these and other animals. When the impacts of all phases of energy production are considered, wind’s overall risks decrease significantly relative to other modes of energy production. Rene Braud, Director of Permitting and Environmental Affairs for Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy, notes that much of the talk surrounding wind energy’s bird and bat impacts have been “fear-based.” The negative hype “hasn’t been based on science. The study gave us some objective, good research into what we’ve thought all along,” she adds.
Still, in spite of wind’s minimal comparable wildlife impacts, the wind industry continues to look at ways to minimize those moderate risks. “For every project National Wind works on, we notify and consult with Fish and Wildlife officials early in the development process, which improves a project’s compatibility with wildlife considerations. We conduct the necessary vegetation and endangered species studies in order to avoid negative environmental impacts as much as possible,” said Chuck Burdick, Wind Developer at National Wind.

With the Senate looking at possible national renewable electricity standards, the NYSERDA study helps to clarify important information and set the story straight on another wind energy myth.

We recently published a list of 10 wind energy myths & their accompanying facts (Debunking 10 Wind Energy Myths). After writing short blurbs about each of the ten myths, we decided that we should do a series of more in-depth looks at each of these 10 myths and the truths that are being overshadowed by them. In the first of the series, we’ll look at wind energy’s impacts on wildlife.

A lot of people worry about wind turbines killing birds or negatively impacting other animals. This concern is unwarranted given today’s wind turbine technology.

It is estimated that for every 10,000 birds killed by human-related activities, less than one death is caused by wind turbines. In fact, in 2006 the National Academy of Sciences projected that wind energy is accountable for less than .003% of bird deaths caused by human and feline activities. Buildings, meanwhile, account for 100 million to 1 billion bird deaths per year in the United States and vehicles cause up to 80 million bird deaths per year. Communications towers, pesticides, and hunters also each kill millions of birds each year in the US. Even if enough turbines were installed to power the entire US solely by wind, only .4% of bird deaths would be caused by wind turbines.

As the turbines get bigger, the number of bird deaths actually further decreses. Larger turbines, like the 1.5 and 2 MW turbines of today, have HUGE blades with a lot of surface area. These 200-foot blades turn slowly because of how big they are. Birds see the swinging blades and avoid them easily.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has also partnered with Bat Conservation International, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to research interactions between wind power developments and bats. As the research has progressed, teams of experts have been using the data to come up with ways to reduce wind energy’s impacts on bats. Large impacts on bats have been limited to two sites in the Eastern United States, but the impacts have been taken seriously by the industry assocation.

It is clear that the wind energy industry takes potential wildlife impacts quite seriously and works very hard to reduce the impact of wind turbines on birds and bats. Extensive site analysis is done before siting wind turbines to avoid impacting wildlife, especially endangered species and large birds of prey. Monitoring of bird interactions has continued after construction at several sites around the US and has validated the efficacy of pre-construction site analyses. As the wind industry grows, so will the methods & standards for site analyses which effectively mitigate impacts on wildlife.

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