New Study Confirms Wind Turbines Killing Hundreds of Thousands of Birds

A new study shows that in spite of updated designs, U.S. wind turbines are killing hundreds of thousands of birds annually—a number that may balloon to about 1.4 million per year by 2030, when the ongoing industry expansion being encouraged by the federal government is expected to be fully implemented.

Wind Power: It's not smart unless it's bird-smart (Credit: Joshua Winchell FWS)
Wind Power: It’s not smart unless it’s bird-smart (Credit: Joshua Winchell FWS)

The findings were issued in a new study by scientists at the Smithsonian Institution Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and Oklahoma State University (OSU), published in the December issue of the journal Biological Conservation and authored by Scott Loss (OSU), Tom Will (FWS), and Peter Marra (SMBC), reports The Birding Wire.

The study, “Estimates of bird collision mortality at wind facilities in the contiguous United States,” was based on a review of 68 studies that met rigorous inclusion criteria and data derived from 58 bird mortality estimates contained in those studies. The studies represented both peer-reviewed and unpublished industry reports and extracted data to systematically estimate bird collision mortality and mortality correlates.

“The life expectancy for eagles and all raptors just took a big hit. Clearly, when you look at this study and you consider the new 30-year eagle take permits just announced by the Department of Interior, this is a bad month for this country’s iconic birds,” said Dr. Michael Hutchins, National Coordinator of American Bird Conservancy’s (ABC) Bird Smart Wind Energy campaign.

New Study Confirms Wind Turbines Killing Hundreds of Thousands of Birds (Source: earthtechling.com)
New Study Confirms Wind Turbines Killing Hundreds of Thousands of Birds (Source: earthtechling.com)

According to George Fenwick, President of ABC: “This study by top scientists says that hundreds of thousands of birds are being killed by the wind industry now, and that the number will escalate dramatically if we continue to do what we have been doing. The biggest impediment to reducing those impacts continues to be wind industry siting and operating guidelines that are only followed on a voluntary basis. No other energy industry gets to pick and choose where they put their facilities and decide how they are going to operate in a manner unconstrained by federal regulation.”

“The industry has been saying for some time that bird mortality would be reduced with the new turbines compared to the older, lattice structures. According to this study, that does not appear to be the case,” Hutchins pointed out, since the study excluded data from wind developments using older designs.

New Study Confirms Wind Turbines Killing Hundreds of Thousands of Birds (Source: antioligarch.wordpress.com)
New Study Confirms Wind Turbines Killing Hundreds of Thousands of Birds (Source: antioligarch.wordpress.com)

“The status quo is legally, as well as environmentally, unsustainable,” Hutchins said further. “The federal government is seeking to promote an energy sector in a manner that is in violation of one of the premier federal wildlife protection statutes. In December 2011, we formally petitioned the Department of the Interior to develop mandatory regulations that will safeguard wildlife and reward responsible wind energy development. We continue to believe that is the solution.”

A coalition of more than 60 groups has called for mandatory standards and bird-smart principles in the siting and operation of wind energy installations. The coalition represents a broad cross-section of respected national and local groups. In addition, 20,000 scientists, ornithologists, conservationists, and other concerned citizens have shown their support for mandatory standards for the wind industry.

According to ABC, poorly sited and operated wind projects pose a serious threat to birds, especially birds of prey such as Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, hawks, and owls; endangered and threatened species such as California Condors and Whooping Cranes; and species of special conservation concern such as the Bicknell’s Thrush, Cerulean Warbler, Tricolored Blackbird, Sprague’s Pipit, and Long-billed Curlew.

One particularly interesting finding of the new study concerned the height of turbines. The scientists found that bird collision mortality increased significantly with increasing hub height. Across a range of turbine heights from 118 to 262 feet, the study predicts a staggering tenfold increase in bird mortality. This is especially important because the study identifies an apparent trend toward increased turbine height.

Further, the study states: “This estimate (1.4 million) assumes that average wind turbine height will not increase. Installation of increasingly larger turbines could result in a greater amount of mortality.”

This kestrel died after colliding with a wind turbine at Altamont Pass, California (Credit: BioResource Consultants courtesy Center for Biological Diversity)
This kestrel died after colliding with a wind turbine at Altamont Pass, California (Credit: BioResource Consultants courtesy Center for Biological Diversity)

Such an eventuality may be likely given that a Department of Energy report found that the average turbine hub height of U.S. wind turbines has increased 50 percent between 1998 and 2012.

The report offered several additional key observations about wind energy and bird mortality:

The mortality rate at wind farms in California was dramatically higher than anywhere else. According to the study: “We estimate that 46.4% of total mortality at monopole wind turbines occurs in California, 23.1% occurs in the Great Plains, 18.8% occurs in the East, and 11.6% occurs in the West.”

Failure to consider species-specific risks may result in relatively high rates of mortality for some bird species even if total mortality is relatively low.

The fatality records in the study identified at least 218 species of birds killed at wind energy installations.

The new study comes just after the Department of Justice announced a settlement on the prosecution of Duke Energy’s wind developments in Wyoming in connection with the deaths of 14 Golden Eagles and 149 other protected birds. That first-ever settlement resulted in $1 million in fines and mitigation actions and was the first prosecution of a wind company in connection with bird mortality.

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Feds Petitioned to Regulate Wind Industry

American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the nation’s leading bird conservation organization, formally petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior to protect millions of birds from the negative impacts of wind energy by developing regulations that will safeguard wildlife and reward responsible wind energy development, according to a news release.

The nearly 100-page petition for rulemaking, prepared by ABC and the Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm of Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal (MGC), urges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to  issue regulations establishing a mandatory permitting system for the operation of wind energy projects and mitigation of their impacts on migratory birds. The proposal would provide industry with legal certainty that wind developers in compliance with a permit would not be subject to criminal or civil penalties for violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

The government estimates that a minimum of 440,000 birds are currently killed each year by collisions with wind turbines.

In the absence of clear, legally enforceable regulations, the massive expansion of wind power in the United States will likely result in the deaths of more than one million birds each year by 2020. Further, wind energy projects are also expected to adversely impact almost 20,000 square miles of terrestrial habitat, and another 4,000 square miles of marine habitat.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The petition highlights the particular threat from unregulated wind power to species of conservation concern and demonstrates the legal authority that FWS possesses to enforce MBTA regulations and grant take permits under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The petition also provides specific regulatory language that would accomplish the petition’s objectives, identifying the factors that would be considered in evaluating a permit for approval, including the extent to which a given project will result in adverse impacts to birds of conservation concern and species that are under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

ABC is filing this petition because it’s clear that the voluntary guidelines the government has drafted will neither protect birds nor give the wind industry the regulatory certainty it has been asking for. We’ve had voluntary guidelines since 2003, and yet preventable bird deaths at wind farms keep occurring. This includes thousands of Golden Eagles that have died at Altamont Pass in California and multiple mass mortality events that have occurred recently in West Virginia,” said Kelly Fuller, Wind Campaign Coordinator for ABC.
“The status quo is legally as well as environmentally unsustainable.  The federal government is seeking to promote “a smart from the start” energy sector in a manner that is in violation of one of the premier federal wildlife protection statutes. ABC’s petition seeks to bring wind power into harmony with the law as well as with the needs of the migratory bird species that the law is designed to safeguard,” said Shruti Suresh, an attorney at MGC, the law firm that prepared the petition with ABC and that has brought many legal actions enforcing federal wildlife protection laws.

The petition is available online here.

ABC supports wind power when it is “bird-smart”. A coalition of more than 60 groups has called for mandatory standards and bird-smart principles in the siting and operation of wind farms. The coalition represents a broad cross-section of respected national and local groups. In addition, 20,000 scientists, ornithologists, conservationists, and other concerned citizens have shown their support for mandatory standards for the wind industry.
“ABC’s petition would safeguard more than just birds covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It proposes a model rule that would allow the government to consider impacts of wind farms on all bird species, as well as bats and other wildlife,” said Fuller.

Poorly sited and operated wind projects pose a serious threat to birds, including birds of prey such as Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, hawks, and owls; endangered and threatened species, such as California Condors and Whooping Cranes; and species of special conservation concern, such as the Bicknell’s Thrush, Cerulean Warbler, Tricolored Blackbird, Sprague’s Pipit, and Long-billed Curlew.

The petition asserts that, by allowing the industry to police itself, FWS has permitted widespread disregard for legal mandates the Service is entrusted to enforce.

Roseate Spoonbill at South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When 200 birds were caught in a freak ice storm in northern Alberta, and landed on Syncrude’s oilsands tailing ponds, Greenpeace was all over the story calling the bird deaths reprehensible. Thousands of birds are killed annually by wind farms, allegedly a more environmentally friendly source of energy, and Greenpeace is conspicuously silent.

Is it okay to butcher countless birds, create noise pollution, and make beautiful scenic areas ugly—all for the sake of green energy?

You be the judge.

Related

Worth Pondering…
There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

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Wind Farm Responsible for Hundreds of Bird Deaths

With the deaths of nearly 500 birds at the Laurel Mountain wind farm earlier this month, three of the four wind farms operating in West Virginia have now experienced large bird fatality events, according to American Bird Conservancy (ABC).

“Wind energy has the potential to be a green energy source, but the industry still needs to embrace simple, bird-smart principles that would dramatically reduce incidents across the country, such as those that have occurred in West Virginia,” said Kelly Fuller, ABC’s Wind Campaign Coordinator.

There were three critical circumstances that tragically aligned in each of the three West Virginia events to kill these birds. Each occurred during bird migration season, during low visibility weather conditions, and with the addition of a deadly triggering element—an artificial light source. Steady-burning lights have been shown to attract and disorient birds, particularly night-migrating songbirds that navigate by starlight, and especially during nights where visibility is low such as in fog or inclement weather. Circling birds collide with structures or each other, or drop to the ground from exhaustion, reports ABC.

At the Laurel Mountain facility in the Allegheny Mountains, almost 500 birds were reportedly killed after lights were left on at an electrical substation associated with the wind project. The deaths are said to have occurred not from collisions with the wind turbines themselves, but from a combination of collisions with the substation and apparent exhaustion as birds caught in the light’s glare circled in mass confusion.

Red-tailed Hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the evening of September 24 this year at the Mount Storm facility in the Allegheny Mountains, 59 birds and two bats were killed. Thirty of the dead birds were found near a single wind turbine that was reported to have had internal lighting left on overnight. This incident stands in stark contrast to industry assertions that just two birds per year are killed on average by each turbine. Data from Altamont Pass, California wind farms—the most studied in the nation—suggest that over 2,000 Golden Eagles alone have been killed there.

On May 23, 2003 at the Mountaineer wind farm in the Allegheny Mountains, at least 33 birds were killed.

“The good news is that it shouldn’t be hard to make changes that will keep these sorts of unnecessary deaths from happening again, but it’s disturbing that they happened at all. It has long been known that many birds navigate by the stars at night, normally fly lower during bad weather conditions, and that artificial light can draw them off course and lead to fatal collision events. That’s why minimizing outdoor lighting at wind facilities is a well-known operating standard. And yet lights were left on at these sites resulting in these unfortunate deaths. This reinforces the need to have mandatory federal operational standards as opposed to the optional, voluntary guidelines that are currently under discussion,” Fuller said.

A fourth wind farm in West Virginia, the Beech Ridge Wind Energy Project in Greenbrier County, has not experienced large mortality events, likely because it is currently prohibited by a court order from operating during nighttime between April 1 and November 15.

Sandhill cranes in flight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Some West Virginia conservation groups have suggested that other wind farms in the state should shut down their wind turbines at certain times and seasons to protect birds. Given the recurring bird-kill problems, that idea needs to be seriously considered, at least during migration season on nights where low visibility is predicted. A wind farm in Texas is doing just that, so it is possible.” said Fuller.

When 200 birds were caught in a freak ice storm in northern Alberta, and landed on Syncrude’s oilsands tailing ponds, Greenpeace was all over the story calling the bird deaths reprehensible. When hundreds of birds are killed by wind farms, allegedly a more environmentally friendly source of energy, Greenpeace is conspicuously silent.

Is it okay to butcher countless birds, create noise pollution, and make beautiful scenic areas ugly—all for the sake of green energy?

You be the judge.

Details
American Bird Conservancy (ABC)

American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit membership organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. ABC acts by safeguarding the rarest species, conserving and restoring habitats, and reducing threats, while building capacity in the bird conservation movement.

Address: P.O. Box 249, 4249 Loudoun Avenue, The Plains, VA 20198-2237

Phone: (540)253-5780 or (888) 247-3624

Website: abcbirds.org

Worth Pondering…
There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Read More