UPDATED: November 27th 2012
Bird deaths caused by wind farms is a very controversial subject which one must tread carefully in reporting. There’s a lot of loose talk out there and many vested interests. The Generalist hope this post will provide a useful and independent view. I am broadly enthusiastic about wind energy development. Greater public awareness of this issue should help to ensure that known solutions to bird collision death problems are properly addressed. The industry can help themselves by being more open about the problem and about what they are doing about it.
Wind energy is the fastest growing source of power worldwide according to the World Bank. China plans a 60% increase in the next three years and the US a six-fold jump by 2030. The EU aims to produce 20% of its energy through renewables by 2020 - much it this from wind. Will this huge expansion of wind farms have a serious impact on bird life?
These three maps make this global expansion easier to visualise. The data is from 2009. (Top): Existing wind farms (Centre): Wind farms under construction; (Bottom) Wind farms planned for future development. Data from 2009. Source: www.greenchipstocks.com
Migratory flyways of wild bird populations. A world map with the main general migratory flyways of wild bird populations is shown (adapted from information collected and analyzed by Wetlands International). Source: Science/21st April 2006 [ignore the dots]
Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
This map illustrates the four major migration flyways of North America; developers are hard-pressed to site wind projects in areas with little effect on birds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimates that 440,000 birds are killed in collisions with wind turbines each year; without stronger regulation, says the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the annual toll will exceed one million by 2030. To address this issue, the U.S. Department of the Interior has released voluntary guidelines to help developers minimize the impact of wind energy projects on bird habitat and migration. Developed over five years with an advisory committee that included government agencies, the wind energy industry, and some conservation organizations, the guidelines are intended to ensure compliance with federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act—although the rules allowing them to do so are controversial.
Source: ‘Mixed News For Birds, Wind Farms and Buildings’ by Erin Weaver /GreenSource/April 30 2012
The modern wind industry really began in the early1980s. According to The Economist: ‘Even though the technology was in its early stages, California installed more than 1.2GW of wind power, then almost 90% of global capacity, in the first half of the 1980s—an era that has come to be known as the great “wind rush”. The rush was driven by a combination of federal tax credits and generous state incentives for wind power. Previously, wind turbines had been installed as single machines or in small clusters. But during the boom, turbines began to be installed in large arrays, or “wind farms”.’
Panorama. Photo by Steve Deutsch, 2003. Source:http://xaharts.org/Whirlwheel_dir/livermore.html
The most notorious of these was at Altamont Pass north of San Francisco – notorious because it became a graveyard for birds.
The Altamont Pass wind farm, one of the earliest built in the US – the first rotors were installed in 1981 - is still the largest concentration of wind turbines in the world, composed of 5,200 small wind turbines of various types, sited in a 62 sq ml area of land, operated by some dozen companies. When construction started no thought had been given to its effect on wildlife, particularly birds.
More than 4,700 birds are killed here each year, including 1300 birds of prey –rare burrowing owls, red-tailed hawks and golden eagles. In fact Altamont Pass is the world’s densest nesting area for golden eagles, a federally protected species. Seventy to eighty eagles are killed each year by the wind turbines.
According to Popular Mechanics (2007): "A lot of adults come here looking for territory," says ecologist Shawn Smallwood, who has studied the pass extensively, "and very few make it out." By checking 600 of these turbines every day (and many more on other companies’ sites), Smallwood was able to identify the deadliest offenders.’
This excellent video (from 2007) ‘Fatal Attraction: Birds and Wind Turbines’ tells the story.of Altamont Pass and the battle to get the companies involved to replace dangerous turbines. Some progress has been made.
According to Wikipedia: ‘As of 2010, a settlement has been reached between the Audubon Society, Californians for Renewable Energy and NextEra Energy Resources (who operate some 5,000 turbines in the area). Nearly half of the smaller turbines will be replaced by newer, more bird-friendly models. The project is expected to be complete by 2015 and includes $2.5 million for raptor habitat restoration.’
In Common concerns about Wind Power a 2012 report from the Centre of Sustainable Energy in Bristol, it says that ‘these unfortunate events form the basis of the misconception that new wind farms will cause dis-proportionate harm to bird populations.’
It also says that ‘Considerable variation exists in the number of birds killed annually across different wind farms worldwide’ although no data is given.
Also that ‘the industry now undertakes extensive surveying of avian populations and migratory routes to further minimise any detrimental effects before commercial turbines are sited.
‘Modern, large-scale megawatt turbines in use for the past
ten years have been found to result in a significantly lower
rate of fatalities in most areas where they have been
[On this last point: At Altamont Pass, for example, 250 of the smaller turbines were replaced with 80 new ones, twice as tall, producing comparable power. The new height has helped cut eagle deaths but increased red-tailed hawk deaths which fly at a higher altitude).
It is certainly true that, at present, the number of bird deaths caused by wind turbines are much lower than other causes of bird mortality – two of which we have looked at in the Previous Posts.
But according to Meera Subramanian in an article The Trouble With Turbines: An Ill Wind [Nature/June 2012]. turbines disproportionally ‘ threaten species that are already struggling, such as bats, which in North America have been hit hard by white-nose fungus…. and raptors, which are slow to reproduce and favour the wind corridors that energy companies covet.
“There are species of birds that are getting killed by wind turbines that do not get killed by autos, windows or buildings,” says Shawn Smallwood,
‘Other species at risk include the critically endangered California condors (Gymnogyps californicus) — which number only 226 in the wild — and the few hundred remaining whooping cranes (Grus americanus), concentrated in the central United States.
‘Biologists can't say whether the increase in wind farms will cause the collapse of these or other bird species, which already face many threats. But waiting for an answer is not an option, says Smallwood. “By the time we do understand the population-level impacts, we might be in a place we don't want to be.”
Above picture courtesy of the Colectivo Ornitológico Cigüeña Negra (COCN), Cadiz. Source Save The Eagles International
Subramanian also reports that the Spanish Ornithological Society in Madrid estimates that Spain's 18,000 wind turbines may be killing 6 million to 18 million birds and bats annually. [Figures announced at the First Scientific Congress on Wind Energy and Wildlife Conservation in Jerez de la Frontera, [12th Jan 2012]
Griffon vultures and other raptors flying across the Strait of Gibraltar have to negotiate 13 wind farms in Cadiz province. US biologist Marc Bechard was hired to help solve the problems.
‘The early signs’, writes Subramanian ‘are that with targeted efforts, wind power and wildlife can cautiously coexist. Bechard and his colleagues, for example, lowered mortality at the Cádiz wind farms by 50%, with only a 0.07% loss in energy production Others are finding that minor changes in the design or operation of wind farms can bring major reductions in animal deaths.’
‘Bird Sensitivity Map to provide locational guidance for onshore wind farms in Scotland’. RSPB Report:June 2006
In 2008, the Scottish government rejected plans for a 181 turbine wind farm on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides on the grounds that it ‘would have had "significant adverse impacts" on rare and endangered birds living on the peatlands – a breach of European habitats legislation.’
Building the turbines and the power distribution infrastructure may be a greater problem for many bird species due to disruption or loss of habitat, according to scientists with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK. Their findings were published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.’ and published on the BBC News website (12th April 2012 under the heading: ‘Wind Farms: ‘Not Major Bird Mincers’.
UPDATE: The Generalist spoke with Graham Meade, one of the RSBP press officers today about wind farms and other bird collision issues. He told me the RSPB are pro renewable energy (they are having a wind turbine installed to power their HQ) but they do watch and assess proposed wind energy projects carefully to determine the potential impact of the development on bird populations and their habitat.
He estimates that they oppose some 6% of the plans. He said they now discuss issues with wind developers at a much earlier stage in the planning process. In fact, when I spoke to him, he was at a conference where they had just been looking at satellite images showing the migration of gannets in connection with a discussion about the siting of wind farms in the North Sea.
The dead adult female on this picture was No. 7 killed in the Smøla wind-farm. Photo © Espen Lie Dahl. Source: www.vulkaner.no/n/birds/eagle/hav.html
SMOLA WIND FARM/WHITE-TAILED EAGLES
* The wind farm on the Smola islands off the Norwegian coast in Norway consist of 68 wind turbine making it one of the largest wind projects in Europe.
On the 23rd June 2006, the BBC reported that, according to the RSPB, ‘nine white-tailed eagles have been killed on the Smola islands off the Norwegian coast in 10 months, including all of last year's chicks. Chick numbers at the species' former stronghold have plummeted since the wind farm was built, with breeding pairs at the site down from 19 to one.
White-Tailed Eagles are Europe's largest bird of prey. The Smola islands were designated an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International in 1989 because it had one of the highest densities of white-tailed eagles in the world.
The BBC story says that: ‘Norwegian Institute for Nature Research has launched a four-year study at the site to assess the impact of the turbines on various species of birds and the ability of white tailed eagles to adapt to them. Meanwhile, Statkraft, which operates the Smola site, says it is doing everything it can to find a solution to the problem.’
In a 2011 interview with Norwegian ornithologist Alv Ottar Folkestad on the European Raptors Biology and Cionservation website.
Markus Jais: What other threats to White-tailed Eagles do exist in Norway?
Alv Ottar Folkestad: …what to me is a really scaring prospective is the way wind power development has been introduced in this country. The first wind power plant of significant size in Norway, on Smøla, is localized into the most spectacular performance of nesting concentration of White-tailed Eagles ever known. There are plans for making wind power into huge dimensions, and most of them localized in the most pristine coastal landscape of the most important areas of the White-tailed Eagle. During the last five and a half years, the wind power plant on Smøla has been killing 40 white-tailed eagles, 27 of them adult or sub adult birds, and 11 of them during 2010. There are no mitigating measures taken so far, and hardly any to think of, and there is no indication of adaptation among the eagles to such constructions.’
Statkraft claim that the number of birds and the breeding rates on the Smola islands are increasing. See: ‘Sea eagle research at Smøla wind farm (17-6-2010)’
‘Last year, the population was estimated at 65 to 70 pairs, as well as some individual birds, or about 150 sea eagles in total.
“The Smøla sea eagle population has grown steadily since 1997. Last summer, we registered activity in 61 sea eagle territories on the main island and adjacent islets. This is the highest number on record. There is very little nesting inside the actual wind farm area, but the sea eagle reproduction on Smøla is generally increasing,” says senior researcher Kjetil Bevanger at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA).
Bulgaria's Minister of Environment and Water has revoked two environmental impact assessments (EIA) issued by a regional inspectorate in the Black Sea city of Varna for the construction of two large wind farms in Dobrudzha.
The decision issued by Nona Karadzhova was triggered by signals of the environmental organizations Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) and the Green Balkans, which warned about the dangers resulting from the positioning of the wind farm propellers on bird migration routes.
The stopped investment projects envisage the construction of 150 wind turbines by the General Toshevo company and 95 other wind turbines by the Smin company.
The facilities were to be built in one of the busiest sections of the Via Pontica migration flyway and were dangerously close to protected areas under Natura 2000, according to the environmentalists.
The land plot borders on the Durankulashko Ezero protected site, a natural landmark of European and global importance.
Representatives of environmental organizations insist that the Director of the Varna Regional Inspectorate for Environment Protection made the decision to approve the construction of the wind parks on the basis of misleadingly presented and falsely interpreted biological and ornithological data.
Experts from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) have also opposed the wind park projects.
‘Migratory birds on collision course with wind parks’ by Cam McGrath [Egyptian Independent/29th Dec 2011]
‘Egypt hopes to harness the wind to help meet its soaring demand for energy, but plans to build a network of wind farms near Gebel al-Zeit on the Red Sea coast have rankled avian conservationists. They fear wind turbines positioned at this geographical choke point could injure or kill untold numbers of migratory birds.
“It’s unfortunate, but the area in Egypt with the highest wind speed is also a bottleneck in one of the world’s biggest bird migration routes,” says environmental consultant Mindy Baha al-Din. “If they create a ‘great wall’ of wind turbines near Gebel al-Zeit, as they did at Zafarana further north, thousands of birds could be killed every year.”
The proposed site is ‘a major bottleneck for birds migrating between their breeding grounds in Europe and West Asia and wintering areas in East Africa. More than 1.5 million migratory birds, including several globally threatened species, travel through the area every year. Among them are White Storks, European Honey Buzzards, Lesser Kestrels, Steppe Eagles, and the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis.’
Earlier this year, the paper also reported on a visit to Egypt’s largest wind farm in Zaafarana and Elsewedy Towers, the first wind turbine tower construction site in the Middle East and North Africa. Also on the start of the construction of Africa’s biggest wind farm in northern Kenya on the shores of Lake Turkana.
Two different views over the impact of this wind farm on the endangered Californian condor.
The image shows a history of condor sightings in the habitat occupied by the Tehachapi Pass Wind farm in California. Map courtesy Jim Wiegand . Source; The Examiner
California condors, wind farms on collision course [The Examiner/30 August 2009]
Condors versus Wind Turbines [Infrascape Design/5 Jan 2012]