Study says wind farms kill more than 300K birds a year

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A new study led by government and academic researchers finds new wind farms using the most modern equipment are still killing hundreds of thousands of birds each year in collisions, a finding seized upon by conservation activists.

The study published in this month’s Biological Conservation says as many as 328,000 birds are killed each year in collisions with so-called monopole wind turbines that are increasingly preferred by the wind power industry and are in use today.

The peer-reviewed study led by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Migratory Bird Center and the Fish and Wildlife Service is the first to look at the impacts to birds specifically of the monopole designs as opposed to older lattice tower designs, many of which have been decommissioned.

The study also found evidence that as the height of a “turbine hub” increases, so does the bird mortality rate.

“Despite the decommissioning of many lattice-tower turbines that have caused large numbers of bird collisions, such as those at Altamont Pass in California, bird collisions still occur at turbines with solid monopole towers, which now comprise the vast majority of U.S. turbines,” the study says.

And despite the wind power industry’s assurances that turbines kill a smaller volume of birds than cellphone towers, feral cats and other bird hazards, “mortality at wind facilities should not be dismissed offhand,” according to the study.

Indeed, if the nation meets Energy Department goals of wind power producing 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030, the estimated “mean annual mortality estimate” jumps to 1.4 million birds, the study says.

“Multi-scale decisions about where to site wind facilities and individual wind turbines in the context of risks to individual bird species will be crucial to minimizing this mortality,” the study says.

The study also notes a trend of increased turbine height to capture more of the stronger wind speeds.

“Turbine height was a strong predictor of mortality rate,” said Scott Loss, a conservation biologist and the lead author of the study as part of postdoctoral research with the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center. Loss is now an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, which sent out Loss’ statement.

“Our finding of increased turbine height being related to increased bird mortality is a cause for concern,” Loss said. “Bird mortality rates should be taken into consideration, in addition to energy efficiency considerations, when evaluating the greenness of different turbine types.”

The study comes days after the Interior Department announced that it has finalized a new rule that will allow renewable energy and other projects to obtain permits to injure, kill or disturb bald and golden eagles for up to 30 years, a move that alarmed environmentalists (Greenwire, Dec. 6).

And it comes just weeks after the Justice Department announced a first-ever criminal enforcement of bird protection laws at a wind energy facility, fining a North Carolina-based energy giant $1 million for killing more than 150 migratory birds, including 14 golden eagles, at two Wyoming wind farms over the past few years (Greenwire, Nov. 25).

Conservation advocates seized on the newly published study.

“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,” said George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy.

“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 American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, has argued that the industry takes enormous steps to protect birds, more so than other industries, and that when it comes to eagles the industry has been unfairly singled out.

John Anderson, AWEA’s director of siting policy, said in a statement that mean bird mortality in the study, 234,000 birds, falls in line with past estimates, which he said “is considerably less than other more significant sources of avian mortality such as buildings, telecommunication towers, oil & gas exploration and production, etc.”

“It isn’t entirely clear, however, as to what data this particularly study in question relied upon, particularly with respect to its conclusions that there is a correlation between the height of a tower and level of risk, and as with any study this is merely one data point and not the definitive answer on the subject,” he added. “Moving forward we will be working with our partners in the scientific and conservation communities … to see if this theory has merit and continue to pursue opportunities to further reduce our already comparatively low impacts further.”

But Michael Hutchins, national coordinator of the conservancy’s Bird Smart Wind Energy campaign, said more is needed from the industry.

“The industry has been saying for some time that bird mortality would be reduced with the new turbines compared to the older, lattice structures,” he said. “According to this study, that does not appear to be the case.”