The Birds and the Breeze Making wind power safe for wildlife
by Frances Cerra Whittelsey
Siting wind farms far from avian flight paths can greatly reduce bird kills; taller turbines with fewer arms also help.
ALTAMONT, CALIFORNIA, gave wind farms a bad reputation. At least 22,000 birds, including some 400 golden eagles, have collided with wind turbines (or been electrocuted by power lines) there, leading some to call the machines "Cuisinarts of the air."
Had studies been done before the 5,400-turbine facility was built in the 1980s, they would have shown that the Altamont Pass is an important migration route and wintering area for raptors.
Better placement of wind farms and individual turbines is key to reducing bird fatalities. "We support appropriately sited wind power projects," insists Jeff Miller, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing for restitution for bird deaths at Altamont. Laurie Jodziewicz, representing the American Wind Energy Association, says, "It's standard practice now to do bird studies prior to construction." Jodziewicz also notes that today's turbines are taller--above the flight paths of many birds--and more efficient than earlier models. Over the next decade at Altamont, one new turbine will replace every 15 old ones, producing the same amount of power.
To help minimize risks at its proposed 140-megawatt wind farm off the south shore of Long Island, New York, the Long Island Power Authority conducted an environmental assessment. The review eliminated sites near inlets and at the island's tip at Montauk Point because of high concentrations of birds. Pending a final environmental impact statement, local conservation groups have so far supported building the project 3.6 miles off the popular Jones Beach State Park. Some residents, however, remain opposed on aesthetic grounds.
Bats too have been hurt by wind turbines, but mitigation studies began only in 2005, a year after the discovery that thousands had died at wind farms in the mountains of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Work is now under way to find a means to warn bats away from the spinning blades.
Efforts to make turbines safer for birds seem to be working. According to a 2003 study of 4,700 turbines located outside California, each killed 2.3 birds per year. That's a tiny number compared with the hundreds of millions of birds that fall prey to cats every year, or the 4 million, at minimum, that collide with communication towers. And it pales in comparison to the number of birds and other creatures that would be killed by catastrophic global warming.
The map above was developed by the Nature Conservancy to encourage responsible wind power in Oklahoma. (This fragment shows the state's panhandle.) It highlights areas with strong winds and ecologically sensitive habitat. Talk about sensitive: Endangered prairie chickens aren't at risk of flying into turbines because they shy away from tall objects that might serve as raptor perches. For an interactive version of the entire map, visit www2.ocgi.okstate.edu/website/wildwind/viewer.htm.
Map courtesy of the Nature Conservancy
Photo courtesy of Warren Gretz/DOE/NREL