Wildlife face fatalities in the push for green energy

Two wind turbines provide energy for a Walgreens in Evanston at 635 Chicago Ave.

By Michaela Meaney

Wildlife advocates see enormous risks for birds, bats and other animals as wind turbines spread across the country. The major concern is how to prevent wildlife fatalities in the push to go green.

“We’ve rushed toward alternative energy without having the knowledge or experience to control it regularly,” said Michael Hutchins, at a recent panel discussion hosted by the Chicago Ornithological Society and Sierra Club.

Hutchins, national coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign, discussed the impact of wind energy on birds, bats and other wildlife along with representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The major issues discussed by the panel regarding wind energy facilities and their repercussions on wildlife included the lack of formal regulations and the lack of accurate data.

“There aren’t any wind-specific federal or state regulations that apply to commercial wind energy [in Illinois],” said Keith Shank, Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ natural resources manager. Shank, who specializes in wind energy consultation, explained that there are voluntary guidelines in place, but “in Illinois it’s up to county and municipal governments to regulate, and they do that through their zoning ordinances.”

However, 30 counties in the state do not even have zoning ordinances, Shank said. He also said that wind developers must consult with the IDNR when siting, but it is only an advisory consultation.

By the end of 2012 the U.S. had over 46,100 “utility-scale” wind turbines, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Currently Illinois has 2,195 turbines and 46 wind projects in the state.

The trouble with knowing how exactly wildlife is affected by these wind energy facilities goes back to the regulations. According to Hutchins, the only way find out how many wildlife fatalities occur each year is if companies self-report the incidents or through independent studies.

“Now in Illinois, for each turbine, it’s anywhere from zero to six [wildlife fatalities], which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you have 2,000 or 3,000 turbines, then the numbers start getting up there,” Shank said. “And that’s every year.”

A 2013 study by K. Shawn Smallwood published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin used available fatality reports from wind energy facilities in North America combined with national statistics on carcasses. He estimated that 888,000 bats and 573,000 birds, including 83,000 raptors, casualties occurred each year “at 51,630 megawatt (MW) of installed wind-energy capacity in the United States in 2012.” Total current capacity is 62,300 MW now, according to the Department of Energy (DOE).

Hutchins said that the problem is that many of the wind energy facilities are not properly sited to avoid migratory corridors, noting the whooping crane as an example.

Only 516 whooping cranes, an endangered species, remain in North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The migratory corridor for the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Population extends through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, which runs 1,400 miles. In this area there are 2,433 wind turbines and another 1,355 have been proposed for construction, according to a 2009 paper by Regions 2 and 6 of the FWS. The paper mentioned mortality could occur from collisions with wind turbines in bad weather or low light with flocks on the move. This was “expected to occur infrequently,” because the Arnasas-Wood Buffalo population is just 247. The paper also mentioned that 46 reported cases of “death or serious injury” from collisions with power lines have been reported since 1956.

“To us, siting is everything,” Hutchins said. “We shouldn’t be putting these things in areas that are sensitive to birds like major migratory routes or in wetlands or other sensitive ecological habitats that birds tend to use a lot.”

Jeff Gosse, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional energy coordinator for the upper Midwest, is also concerned with location.

Gosse is the project leader of the FWS’s Avian Radar Project, which began four years ago and tracks migration along the shoreline of the Great Lakes.

“We’re interested in this primarily because of the development of wind facilities,” he said. “The shorelines of the Great Lakes, we believe, are migrational corridors for birds and bats. They also happen to be excellent wind resource areas, prime places to build wind facilities.”

Gosse said the project’s data could be used to help inform resource management and wind energy facilities about the fatalities that can occur due to improper placement of wind turbines.

Not only did Gosse stress the importance of where the data is collected, but also the time of day, frequency, and height and width of data collection when it comes to using data.

Even if Gosse can convince developers to do a radar study, the data would be useless if it is not done properly.

“You’ve got to sample continuously to really find out what’s going on,” he said.

Wind energy promises enormous benefits. According to the DOE’s Wind Vision, increasing wind energy capacity in the U.S. to 20 percent in 2030 could reduce “a cumulative total of 7,600 millions tons of carbon dioxide,” and lower the cost of natural gas by 12 percent, “saving consumers approximately $130 billion.” Trillions of gallons of water would also be saved, along with producing more jobs and more revenue within the U.S.

In 2013, 4.7 percent of Illinois’ electricity was produced by wind energy, according to AWEA, with a range between 3,001 to 4,000 jobs supported as well.

Hutchins explained that ABC is not opposed to wind energy.

“We just want it done right,” he said. “We want these things put in places where they’re not going to do major harm to bird and bats, which are both very important for us ecologically.”

According to Shank, when local governments approve anything that is going to alter environmental conditions – like allowing a company to install wind turbines – they are required to consult with the IDNR.

However the consultations conducted by Shank are only advisory.

“So it’s mandatory that the local governments ask for our advice, and we like to give them advice, but they don’t have to take our advice,” he said. “But the state plays no role whatsoever in deciding where to build a wind turbine, or where not to build a wind turbine.”

Shank said that within recent years four state-listed endangered species have been killed at wind farms. Those included one osprey and three black-billed cuckoos. A northern long-eared bat was also killed at the same wind farm that killed two of the black-billed cuckoos.

Shank looks at possible direct and indirect impacts of wind energy facilities and their effect on endangered and threatened species in natural areas. These include things like noise, visibility, habitat fragmentation, shadow flicker and hydrology, among others.

With shadow flicker, Shank said the turbine “can mimic the shadow of an aerial predator flying across the landscape. The prey species are attuned to those shadows.”

So even if wind turbines do not result in wildlife fatalities, they can affect habitat and behavior.

“And stress of course is implicit, but it doesn’t usually kill things outright,” Shank said. “Although it can do things like make you eat your young and stuff like that.”

And unlike the flocks, wildlife does not have to fly to be affected by wind turbines.

“When I meet sometimes with the industry people and I start talking about turtles and snakes, they start giving me these looks like, ‘Well if it doesn’t fly why are we talking about it?'” Shank said.

Shank said another effect of wind turbines is thermal conduction, and in the case of the ornate box turtles and its offspring, the sex is determined by the nest’s temperature.

“A power line is good to a temperature of 198 degrees when it’s operating,” Shank said. “When you have that conductor underground, there’s no place for the heat to go except into the ground.”

For those who are concerned with wind energy development in their state, Hutchins explained they could do a number of the following:

  • Learn about what kind of wind energy is being introduced
  • Support organizations that are trying to create regulations
  • Become educated on the issues surrounding wind energy
  • Request more transparency from wind energy facilities

“People shouldn’t be anti-wind but they should want it done properly,” Hutchins said.