Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wind Power and Birds

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Recently I was birding in Oklahoma and I was astounded at the number of wind farms—clusters of giant wind turbines—that I saw as I drove around the northwestern part of the Sooner State. This should not have surprised me. After all, Oooooooooklahoma is the state where "the wind comes sweepin' down the plain!" And as the photo above shows, wind-generated power has been around a long time.

No bird watcher would argue against the notion that our country—and the world at large—needs to begin harnessing other, greener forms of energy. In many ways wind power is as green as it gets. The wind blows, giant turbines are rotated at high speeds, and energy is generated by this motion. However the problems with wind energy center on these same giant turbines. Among the turbine-related issues are:

1. Though they look as though they are spinning languidly, the giant blades—especially the tips of the blades—are actually moving at several hundred miles per hour. Anything trying to move past these blades, but within their reach, is going to be hit by them. For a flying bird or a bat, this means instant death. We know that there is mortality at most wind turbine sites. And we know that some are far worse than others based upon their location relative to patterns of bird movement and migration.

2. And speaking of location, lesser prairie chickens and other grassland species of lekking gallinaceous birds (such as both greater and Gunnison sage-grouse) will leave areas when wind turbines are erected. In some cases this moves birds off lekking grounds where they (and their ancestors) have been doing courtship displays for decades if not a century or more. To a prairie chicken a wind turbine (or a cell tower or a string of high-tension power line towers) looks too much like a predator perch, so they leave the immediate area permanently. The same avoiding predators dispersal behavior would happen if we put a bunch of trees out on the prairie.

Lesser prairie chicken

3. Them things is ugly! Opponents of offshore wind farms shout most loudly about how clusters of turbines disrupt their natural vistas. And I have to say that when I've been out in the great wide open spaces of the Great Plains, scanning with my binoculars for longspurs or pipits and a cluster of wind turbines has come into my view, my reaction is negative, not positive. They are an eyesore we're not yet used to seeing.

At their most virulent, the arguments for and against wind power sound like the daily animosity we hear on the political talk shows. Proponents of wind power—and especially the wind industry—are trying to wear the Green Energy badge with pride while largely ignoring the legitimate concerns about incidental deaths of birds and bats. Not ALL wind turbines are bad. But the ones that are bad can be REALLY bad. Still, we want to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, right?

On the other hand, anti-wind-power people sometimes seem to want to ban all forms of turbine-generated energy. Both sides cite statistics to back their claims (environmentalist/birders say towers kill millions of birds. The wind-energy industry counters that far more birds are killed by collisions with cars or window glass or by feral cats. Perhaps this is true, but why add another bird-killing element to our continent? In many states there is basically no regulation on the siting of wind farms, which means towers go up and start spinning before we know the impact on birds and wildlife.

So whom are we to believe?

What we really need is a wind turbine design that is efficient in generating energy but that is also safer for birds and bats. Furthermore we need some cooperative action among environmentalists, policy makers, and the wind industry to ensure that the impacts on birds and wildlife are considered when wind farms are being sited. Right now, it's all about location, location, location.

Until that day, all we can hope for is that the information gathering and the conversation continues. Perhaps we can find a happy medium.

We need wind-generated power. But we need it to be done right.

Here are some interesting links to sites covering this controversial topic.

The American Bird Conservancy's Wind Power Policy

Misconceptions About Bird Mortality and Wind Power:

How Turbine Design Can Reduce Bird Impacts

The USFWS Proposes Voluntary Guidelines to Avoid Bird Deaths

KQED-TV Feature on the Altamont Pass, California Wind Farms

Black Swamp Bird Observatory's Wind Energy Issues Page

Blog Post by Ted Eubanks on the Wind Energy Rush

The American Wind Energy Association

Laura Erickson's Blog Post About Testifying in Court Regarding Wind Power


On May 3, 2011 at 3:16 PM KaHolly said...

Thanks for addressing this issue. I am not a proponent for wind power as it stands right now. I don't believe there is enough concern for the environment to make the necessary changes to the design or to involve the appropriate persons and studies to 'do it right'.

On May 3, 2011 at 4:32 PM Sarah said...

Great post! I completely agree with you: we need wind power, but not at the cost of thousands of birds.

In all seriousness: http://xkcd.com/556/

On May 3, 2011 at 4:42 PM Seabrooke said...

Let me first admit that I don't know all the details behind everything, so I may be missing some key point or even have it wrong, but I recall hearing somewhere that vertical wind turbines, those that look like an eggbeater or half an eggbeater, are not only more efficient for generating energy, they're also safer for wildlife. But that we use the big propeller-like ones because they look more traditional and are easier for the public to accept. Maybe it's not so much about what we do or where we do it as it is how we do it?

On May 4, 2011 at 3:41 AM generadores eolicos said...

it´s sad... we must find a solution for birds soon!

On May 4, 2011 at 12:01 PM Jason Kessler said...

Well observed and written. For me, one point which you make stands out as one that has been under-discussed: "thems things is ugly!" I've encountered them in my ramble and found them breathtakingly hideous, a true ravaging of our wondrous landscapes. Yet they hold some sort of misplaced romanticism for some, perhaps remembering back fondly to a childhood "finger-in-the-dyke" picture book.

In addition, wind power technology as it stands now is deeply inefficient on a cost-versus-reward basis. This is no reason to stop refining the technology, but may be a very good reason to halt the spread of its currently flawed and hazardous form.

(gets down off soapbox now)

On May 8, 2011 at 9:18 AM TR Ryan said...

Great points - I have a friend that works for the energy company that is putting up all those turbines in western Oklahoma and she says emphatically there is nothing green about that kind of wind power - that its all a profit-generating ruse that jumps on the green bandwagon.

On May 14, 2011 at 9:51 PM Anonymous said...

Thanks for addressing this very important issue that all birders should be concerned about. It's not too late to comment on the US Fish And Wildlife Service's draft VOLUNTARY guidelines for wind farms. These guidelines need to be MANDATORY. For more information go to the agency's website or check out the American Bord Conservancy's website. As birders, we need to be proactive in protecting birds!!

On December 25, 2018 at 1:39 AM evergreensumi said...

I simply wanted to thank you so much again. I am not sure the things that I might have gone through without the type of hints revealed by you regarding that situation.
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