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Around the Lab

Wind Power and Wildlife

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by Pat Leonard
 

Wind power has enormous potential as an alternative source of energy. It is nonpolluting; it doesn’t use up finite, nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels; and it doesn’t have to be imported. Wind is there for the taking. But unfortunately, in some areas, wind turbines have been killing birds and bats, especially during migration. To address the problem, the Lab of Ornithology (in partnership with the American Bird Conservancy and the Johnson Foundation) invited 30 top wildlife scientists from industry, government, nongovernmental organizations, and universities to meet in Racine, Wisconsin, this past June to address unanswered questions about how wind energy development will affect migrating birds and bats.

“Billions of birds migrate annually, taking advantage of the same wind currents that are most beneficial for producing wind energy,” said Andrew Farnsworth of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We know that in some locations a small percentage of wind turbines may cause the majority of bird and bat deaths. For example, Altamont Pass, east of Oakland, California, is an extreme case: in an area used regularly by migrant and resident raptors, only a fraction of the 5,000 turbines are responsible for most of the raptor deaths annually. As wind power develops further, we need to know more about how placement, design, and operation impact birds and bats as well as how habitat and weather conditions affect potential hazards.”

“We see great potential in wind energy,” said Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy. “It’s critical we act now to understand the interactions between wind energy installations and birds and bats.”

The scientists addressed some of the critical information that could be collected using advanced tools such as weather surveillance radar, thermal imaging, and microphones directed skyward to map migrations by day and night. New research will build upon monitoring and studies of birds and bats completed before and after existing wind energy facilities were constructed, including work done by other researchers. The coalition appointed working groups to move the new research agenda forward and identified the top priorities, including studying the behavior of birds and bats; estimating mortality more accurately at existing wind turbines; using information on the population size and distribution of birds and bats to focus research on critically important migratory routes and timing; documenting how the interactions of birds and bats with turbines are affected by weather, topography, and their distribution within the airspace swept by wind turbine blades; establishing standardized methods for pre- and post-construction studies to assess bird and bat behavior at wind facilities; and conducting research on ways to mitigate the impact of wind energy development on wildlife.

“Conducting this research will help the wind industry make informed, science-based decisions about where future wind-energy projects can be built, and how they can be operated to minimize the impact on migrating wildlife, while still providing much-needed alternative energy,” said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Lab of Ornithology. “It will also help flesh out specific guidelines for wind farm construction being developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

“Imagine if a similar effort had taken place at the turn of the 20th century with the auto industry and air quality,” said Kraig Butrum, president and CEO of the American Wind Wildlife Institute, an umbrella organization for the wind energy industry and environmental groups. “We’d probably be in a completely different place when it comes to global climate change and energy dependence, because we considered environmental impact from the start.”

Living Bird Magazine

Autumn 2009

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