Progress on Protecting Birds from Wind Turbine Collisions

Wind turbine. Photo: Michael Fry, ABC
Wind turbine. Photo: Michael Fry, ABC

Pressure from environmental organizations to make wind energy bird friendly and therefore truly green is showing some initial signs of changing the attitude and behavior of wind developers and the federal government. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advisory committee has now begun the task of writing recommendations to protect birds from habitat destruction and collision risks associated with wind farms, but much work remains to be done to convert an industry and their regulatory agencies that have long viewed wind power as environmentally benign.


“The push for a massive expansion of renewable sources of energy has tremendous potential for improving environmental conditions and moving us towards the goal of energy independence,” said Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy’s Director of Public Relations. “But we must make sure that in the rush for sustainable power we do not sacrifice sensitive habitats and bird migration corridors, or impact bird and bat populations through needless fatal collisions with spinning turbines. Green energy is only going to be green if we take into account all the environmental factors.”


The current energy plan for the United States calls for 350,000 megawatts of power generation capacity from wind energy by 2030, which is predicted to require building wind farms to cover a total of 19,000 square miles of countryside—approximately the combined areas of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey. The effects on birds and bird habitats could be significant, and require close attention and mitigation.


To help with mitigation efforts, The Nature Conservancy has produced a map of the United States identifying sensitive areas to wind power development, and NRDC and National Audubon Society have joined with Google Earth to produce a map of 13 western states identifying areas where wind developments should be avoided. American Bird Conservancy and Cornell Lab of Ornithology are working to further the development of computer models to predict risks to migrating birds from wind projects. The approach uses data gathered by weather radar stations across the country to predict both where concentrations of birds will occur during the migration seasons, and the weather conditions that could force birds to fly at lower elevations, increasing the probability of collisions with wind turbines. These models would allow wind projects to temporarily shut down, avoiding avian collisions.


A similar project has been introduced by Iberdrola Renewables, which incorporates real-time radar developed by DeTect, Inc. for use at a wind project in coastal Texas. This system uses DeTect’s airport birdike avoidance radar to identify flocks of migrating birds and automatically shut down the wind project when the risk of collision is high.


While these recent advances point towards a better regulated and more responsive wind industry, many projects that may still be very risky for birds are being fast-tracked. For example, several projects in the Great Plains states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas are going ahead without provisions to protect endangered Whooping Cranes. Cranes are well known to be at risk from collisions with electricity transmission lines, and thousands of turbines now being erected along the cranes’ migration route could provide an additional, serious hazard at a time when the population is already at a critically low level.