Agency Awards Grant To Study Wind Turbines’ Impact On Birds And Bats

CREDIT: AP/Matt Young

Low oil prices won't pull investment from renewable energy.

Research into how birds and bats interact with wind turbines is getting a boost, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Last week, the agency announced a $1.1 million grant to the Biodiversity Research Institute in Gorham, Maine, to help researchers develop a system of near-infrared cameras that will detect and document the flight behavior of birds and bats around wind turbines. The goal of the project is to better understand the impact wind turbines have on birds and bats, a topic that’s become increasingly heated as more wind and large-scale solar operations go online in the United States. The grant was one of four announced for research into wind power, with other projects including one that seeks to measure how much wind flows through wind farms. In all, the grants total $4.5 million.

According to data compiled by U.S. News and World Report, between 140,000 and 328,000 birds are killed each year by wind turbines. That’s less than the number killed by oil and gas and far less than are killed by coal (though the data for coal includes fatalities attributable to climate change), but it still points to the need to better understand why birds are being killed by wind turbines and how to safeguard against avoidable fatalities. And according to a study from the University of Colorado, Denver, 600,000 to 900,000 bats were killed by wind turbines in 2012 alone.

The discussion over wind and solar energy’s toll on bird and bat populations has at times pit environmentalists against each other. One camp wants more attention paid to the wind- and solar-induced deaths of birds, especially eagles and other raptors. The other argues that placing too much emphasis to the birds’ deaths will give fuel to anti-renewable energy campaigns. The latter camp points out that birds are killed by infrastructure (one study found that tens of millions of birds are killed by the world’s power lines, another found the same for glass buildings). They say that one needs to consider the bigger picture: after all, cats kill more birds per year than wind turbines do, and wouldn’t you rather a few birds be killed by wind turbines than our entire world be put in jeopardy from our continuing reliance on fossil fuels?

The argument came to a head in December, when the Obama administration announced that it would allow some wind companies to kill bald and golden eagles — an act that’s a felony under the Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Acts and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — without being penalized.

“Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement in December.

But notwithstanding feline and coal bird-killing potential, wind energy needs to be installed smartly in order to prevent birds from dying, as Audubon Magazine reported in April. That means not putting wind farms in key migration routes or important breeding lands of birds.

“There will always be some form of conflict between renewable-energy projects and wildlife, but that conflict can be minimized with a little common sense,” wind developer Christian Herter told Audubon. “Proper siting and sensitivity to the environment, both natural and human, should take precedence — and the balance should not be hard to find in most cases.”

It also means more research into the relationship between birds, bats, and wind turbines — such as the project the DOE is helping fund — and using technology that’s already or soon-to-be available to help prevent bird and bat collisions with wind turbines. Earlier this year, Grist outlined eight ways the wind energy industry is trying to cut down on the birds and bats it kills. Those include radar technology to detect approaching birds, a tactic that, though not perfect, has been utilized in wind farms on the Texas coast. A company in California has attached GPS trackers to the highly-endangered California condors living in the area. If the company sees a condor approaching its wind farm, it shuts down some of its turbines. This tactic obviously wouldn’t be practical for all birds and bats, but has so far been effective in keeping condors safe.

Turning turbines off when winds aren’t strong and using “boom boxes,” which emit high-frequency sounds aimed at confusing bats’ echolocation and thus making them avoid the area that that the boom boxes — and therefore wind turbines — are located are also tactics that are being tested. Researchers are also trying to determine why some bats are attracted to turbines, in order to figure out how to keep them away from them, and engineers are also looking into new turbine shapes that might be safer for birds and bats to fly around.