Larger Turbines Pose Peril for Birds

When the U.S. Department of Energy released a report last month championing the construction of larger, more-powerful wind turbines, the wind industry unsurprisingly greeted the news with enthusiasm. With an extension of the “hub height” of turbines to 360 feet, the chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association said, wind energy could expand to all 50 states.

Less ardent was the association’s response to scientists’ well-documented concerns about the half-million birds that die each year from collisions with existing turbines. Some migrating birds, a spokesman said, fly too high to be harmed by rotor blades.

Indeed, some birds do fly very high. But far more travel at the very altitudes that would put them at the greatest risk of colliding with the taller turbines.

The risk is especially high during spring and fall, when migrating birds take to the skies in billions, many traveling vast distances between their wintering and breeding grounds.

A May report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on radar data of fall migration at two locations in Michigan. The greatest density of birds and bats migrating at night occurred from 300 to 500 feet above ground, almost directly at hub height for the new generation of giant turbines.

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Wind and Solar Facilities Killing Millions of Birds

The Institute of Energy Research reports on a study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, showing every year 573,000 birds (including 83,000 raptors) and 888,000 bats are killed by wind turbines – 30 percent higher than the federal government estimated in 2009, due mainly to increasing wind power capacity across the nation.

This is figure is likely an underestimate because it is based on the data from 2012, while the number of wind and solar facilities has grown since then.

Fossil Fuels, Renewables, Disparate Treatment

  • In 2010, Mother Jones estimated about 800,000 birds died because of the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill. As a result, they paid $100 million in fines for killing and harming migratory birds.
  • In 2009, Exxon Mobil paid $600,000 for killing 85 birds in five states.
  • PacifiCorp, which operates coal plants, paid more than $10.5 million for electrocuting 232 eagles that landed on power lines at its substations.

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To Save Birds, Change the Rules on Wind Turbines

When the Department of Energy released a report last month championing the construction of larger, more-powerful wind turbines, the wind industry unsurprisingly greeted the news with enthusiasm.

Less ardent was the association’s response to well-documented concerns by scientists over the half-million birds that die each year from collisions with existing turbines: Some migrating birds, a spokesman said, fly  too high to be harmed by rotor blades.

Birds and bats “don’t have fixed lanes up there in the sky,” says Jeff Gosse, regional energy coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bloomington, Minn., and the report’s principal investigator. For instance, during poor weather, birds tend to fly lower. “As conditions change, they will change their altitude, also. As the report indicates, many birds and bats are flying within the current rotor swept zone.”

Before we rush to build thousands of turbines taller than many skyscrapers, with blade tips that often spin in excess of 100 miles per hour, we should pause to examine what we already know about turbines’ affect on wildlife.  Concerns about birds — and bats, which turbines also kill in large numbers — have not gone unnoticed.  (The Department of Energy report euphemistically acknowledges the need to address “additional interactions with wildlife.”)

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Bats at Greatest Risk from Turbines in Illinois

Bats are much more likely than birds to be killed or injured by wind turbines in Illinois, according to state data.

“About 22,000 bats a year are killed by wind turbines,” said Keith Shank, who tracks wind turbine collisions and endangered species for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Shank said bats killed by wind turbines typically are not the same species affected by white-nose syndrome, a fungus that has killed millions of bats nationwide since first reported in New York in 2006.

In contrast, three bird deaths and one injury followed by recovery have been reported as a result of wind turbine collisions in Illinois since 2007.

Shank said about half of the state’s wind farm operators file voluntary reports on wildlife collisions with turbines. But he said that combined with operator reports and state analysis, bird deaths are thought to average about one per turbine per year.

There are approximately 2,400 turbines operating in Illinois.

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Inside The Feds’ MBTA Incidental Take Proposal

On May 26, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) initiated an environmental review of a proposed permitting program for authorizing the incidental “take” of migratory birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

The announcement begins what will undoubtedly be a protracted and contentious rulemaking process. Litigation is likely, as well.

FWS proposes, and seeks comment on, a three-pronged permitting framework.

The first prong would be a general, conditional authorization available to industry sectors that FWS has historically engaged with to develop impact reduction measures. Sectors contemplated by FWS include oil, gas and wastewater disposal pits; gas flares; communication towers and transmission lines.

The second prong would require individual incidental take permits and site-specific National Environmental Policy Act reviews for activities not subject to the general, conditional authorization framework.

The third prong would authorize incidental take by federal agencies that enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with FWS. FWS would consider the use of such MOUs to extend take authorization to private parties regulated by the other federal agency.

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Wind Turbines Located in Critical Bird Habitats

Tens of thousands of wind turbines have been installed in areas that are considered critical to migratory and threatened birds and that number is set to more than double in the future.

An analysis by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) shows that more than 30,000 turbines overlap with federally protected bird habitat, including 24,000 in the migratory corridor of the whooping crane and 3,000 in breeding grounds of the endangered Greater Sage-Grouse.

More than 50,000 additional turbines are planned for construction, the group said.

“Wind turbines are among the fastest-growing threats to our nation’s birds,” said Dr. Michael Hutchins, Director of ABC’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign. “Attempts to manage the wind industry with voluntary as opposed to mandatory permitting guidelines are clearly not working. Wind developers are siting turbines in areas of vital importance to birds and other wildlife, and this new data shows that the current voluntary system needs to be replaced with a mandatory permitting system.”

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Wind Turbines Could Be Driving Away Mating Prairie Birds

Shifting to renewable energy sources has been a major focus of recent decades, but a recent study uncovered some unexpected consequences of supposedly eco-friendly machines, the Central Ornithology Publication Office reported.

The findings show wind turbines in Kansas are driving out breeding Greater Prairie-Chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) in the region. A team of researchers monitored prairie-chicken leks (mating sites) before and after the installation of wind turbines, and found the construction caused many leks within about four miles to be abandoned.

Leks are where prairie-chickens mate each spring. Over the course of five years, the researchers looked at 23 of these sites to determined how many male birds were present and how high their body mass was. The installation of the wind turbines proved to reduce both male presence and body mass. Lek abandonment was common in sites where there were seven or fewer males.

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Nine Surprising Migratory Bird Facts

Birds manage to make such mammoth journeys despite various threats, including those posed by humans. In the Mediterranean region alone, millions of migratory birds are hunted and captured each year with guns, nets or twigs covered in adhesive bird lime.

At least two million are said to be caught in Cyprus each year but Egypt tops the list with 140 million birds being caught yearly on their way from Europe to Africa. On the way back they are also hunted in countries such as Albania, leading to population declines because fewer birds get to breed.

Human impact

Humans have also affected birds’ migratory patterns. For instance, overgrazing in the Sahel – a grassland region on the southern edge of the Sahara where millions of hungry birds dine after crossing the immense desert – has caused plants to disappear and the area to dry up. The Sahara is now much wider and some birds, such as sand martins find it much harder to cross. Fewer sand martins visit Europe compared to 50 years ago.

Energized air

Green energy is usually regarded as something good but for birds it can also be dangerous. A solar plant in the United States uses mirrors to focus sunlight onto a receiver to generate electricity but it’s affecting birds too.

Due to the reflected sunlight, the air above the solar plant gets hot, so hot that within the first year of operation about 500 birds flying over it got toasted by the heat or solar flux; another 500 birds died following collisions with the plant.

Wind turbines and power lines also pose a threat to migrating birds through collision or electrocution.

The problems for migratory birds caused by the expansion of various means for generating and distributing energy, inspired the initiators of World Migratory Bird Day to make this year’s theme: “Energy – make it bird friendly!”

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