Don’t be fooled on wind power and birds

The view there on Keystone is full speed ahead, send the dilbit on down – even as government scientists and conservation groups [PDF] raise questions about how the pipeline might harm birds and habitat.

This is an important little fact to keep in mind as you consider the contretemps that has arisen concerning wind power and birds. 

As part of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s rulemaking process for wind energy development, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a mandatory permitting system for the operation of wind projects and mitigation of their impacts on migratory birds. The industry supports voluntary guidelines.

This dustup is sure to excite the wind haters greatly, and as the story unfolds be prepared to hear them use the ABC as a tool to bash wind. (Oops, here they go already!) They’ve been doing it for years, and one of their favorite pastimes is to repeat the ABC’s contention that the government says 440,000 birds are killed in turbine collisions every year.

That’s a big number – until you consider that in the U.S., perhaps a billion birds are killed each year in collisions with building windows, according to Daniel Klem Jr. of the Acopian Center for Ornithology at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. This is a high-side estimate, for sure, but even the ABC puts the building figure at 100 million.

Then there are communication towers. Millions of birds fall prey to these structures scattered across the landscape. 

In a January 2011 article in Birding magazine, Paul Kerlinger and two coauthors concluded: “As of early 2010, we estimated that approximately 100,000 birds are killed by wind turbines each year in the U.S., based on an average of about 3+ birds per turbine per year times 30,000 turbines. This number of fatalities does not appear to be causing significant impacts to populations of the species involved, although as more turbines are erected, cumulative impacts must be considered. If the number of birds estimated to be killed by communication towers (4–50 million) is correct, towers cumulatively may kill 40–500 times more birds than do wind turbines currently operating in the U.S.”

It’s worth pointing out, as well, that the 440,000 figure might not be the government’s final word on the subject. While the ABC petition [PDF] states that the Fish & Wildlife Service “estimated in 2009 that at least 440,000 birds were killed each year by wind turbines” (emphasis added), that isn’t quite true. 

Here’s what the Fish & Wildlife’s go-to man on turbine-bird interaction, Albert Manville, wrote in 2009 [PDF]:  “While the wind industry currently estimates that turbines kill 58,000 birds per year in the U.S., the Service estimates annual mortality at 440,000 birds…. Until a robust, scientifically rigorous cumulative impacts analysis is performed, we will not know with a high degree of certainly the true level of mortality. Admittedly, it still is relatively small.”

Now, this is not to say that the wind industry’s impact on birds (and bats, and other wildlife) should not be scrutinized. It might even be that the ABC’s call for regulation by the federal government should be heeded, even if the American Wind Energy Association doesn’t think so [PDF]. Because no matter what the bird-kill number is, this is true: Wind power is growing and we don’t fully understand its environmental impact. It might be relatively small, but on top off all the other threats to birds, it could be pivotal.

But let’s be clear: This isn’t an argument about whether wind power development should proceed, as many on the right want you to believe. This is about how wind-power should proceed. Even the ABC says it “recognizes that properly sited and operated wind energy projects may be an important part of the solution to climate change, a phenomenon that indisputably poses an unprecedented threat to species and ecosystems.” Countless conservation organizations, including the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, echo that view.

Just last month we reported on a study done by the Nature Conservancy’s Kansas chapter that suggests that conservation goals could be met while putting to use as much as 48 percent of the state for wind power generation, potentially yielding 478 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity.

This was part of a larger Nature Conservancy research project, called “Win-Win for Wind and Wildlife: A Vision to Facilitate Sustainable Development,” that found that with a coordinated approach and careful siting, the nation’s goal of getting 20 percent our electricity from wind by 2030 “can be achieved in places already impacted by human activities.” 

Another hopeful sign: In Northern California, NextEra Energy Resources is replacing and resiting turbines in the Altamont Pass. According to the local Audubon chapter, this will reduce bird impacts by a whopping 80 percent.

It’s not clear yet that it will take stiff regulation to get the wind industry to grow in a way that minimizes environmental degradation, but if it does, so be it. In the meantime, let’s not allow ideologically driven opponents of clean energy development to hijack the bird-wind issue. Their concern, as on Keystone and as always, is protecting fossil-fuel interests, not wildlife.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling