Birds Are Avoiding Offshore Wind Farms, Study Finds

CREDIT: flickr/ James Higgott

A new report by a leading bird research institute in the U.K. found that over 99 percent of seabirds were likely to alter their flight paths in order to avoid collision with offshore wind farms. While the analysis offers new estimates of which seabirds and what percentage change course to avoid wind turbines, it still leaves many questions about the overall impacts of wind turbines — on and offshore — on bird populations.

“It is important not to get lulled into a false sense of security by these figures,” said Aonghais Cook, a research ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology. “Whilst 99 percent of birds may avoid turbines, collision may still be a significant risk at sites with large numbers of birds. Furthermore, there are still a number of key gaps in knowledge for some vulnerable species.”

The research was carried out on behalf of Scottish government by the British Trust for Ornithology and the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Environmental Research Institute.

While offshore wind is yet to establish itself in the U.S., in the U.K. it has been a major player for nearly a decade. Scotland is trying hard to harness this energy as part of its goal of generating 100 percent of its electricity demand from renewables by 2020. The wind-rich country is home to around a quarter of Europe’s total offshore wind capacity. In October, the Scottish Government approved four huge new offshore wind farms that could produce more than 2.2 gigawatts of power, enough to power 1.4 million homes.

According to The Telegraph, the government gave consent with “strict conditions to minimize the impact on birds and the environment.”

In response to the seabird analysis, Aedan Smith, head of planning and development at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, said that even with this new evidence, thousands of birds could still be killed each year and that this “could even significantly reduce the total populations of some species.”

“It is therefore vital that individual developments avoid the most important places for seabirds,” he said. “Impacts on seabirds must be reduced significantly if offshore wind is to realize its full potential of delivering much needed sustainable renewable energy.”

Different birds have markedly different reactions to the wind farms, according to the report. Gannets, which are large, white birds, avoid entering wind farms altogether, while gulls are “less cautious” and may even be drawn to the sites for their foraging benefits. Even so, the report says that inside the farms, gulls “seem to show a strong avoidance of the turbine blades.”