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Wind Industry Finds Solutions for Protecting Vulnerable Wildlife

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Karen Marcus's picture
Freelance Researcher and Writer Final Draft Communications, LLC

In addition to serving as an Energy Central Community Manager, Karen Marcus has nearly 25 years of experience as a content developer within the energy and technology industries. She has worked...

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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2019-06 - US Wind Power, click here for more

Interest in and use of wind power has been increasing rapidly, and it's easy to see why this resource is gaining in popularity. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, it’s “electricity generated without fuel, water, air or water pollution, or planet-warming carbon dioxide.” However, the use of wind power also comes with some drawbacks.

For example, wind turbines aren’t always wildlife-friendly. Birds and bats can be impacted, both as their habitats are eroded, and as they attempt to fly around the turbines, sometimes with fatal results. In addition to being problematic for the animals, companies that don’t work to prevent these issues don’t get financing. Abby Arnold, Executive Director of the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) states in a Union of Concerned Scientists interview, “The Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The Endangered Species Act. Plus state laws, some of which are more restrictive and some of which are less. If you want to build a wind farm and not be at risk, you have to comply.”

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Whether because of ecological reasons or commercial ones, many in the industry are working hard to address this issue.

Development of the AWWI

Arnold recalls that, as the wind industry started to grow commercially, it recognized the need to address wildlife issues as quickly as possible, so it could continue to thrive. A number of industry leaders worked together to create the AWWI to “work with the conservation-science community to understand the risks and develop solutions to address those risks.” Having celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2018, the organization’s membership includes 27 companies, 9 national conservation-science groups, and the Association of State Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA).

According to the AWWI website, its mission is to “facilitate timely and responsible development of wind energy while protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat.” The organization has researched numerous related topics, including how technology can protect wildlife, the effects of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lighting (which is required on structures more than 199 feet tall, including wind turbines) on wildlife, the risks of wind energy development for bats, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) land-based wind energy guidelines.

The AWWI has had good results. For example, the organization worked with environmentalists concerned about local raptors at Altamont Pass, California and operators of a wind farm there. The local utility, PG&E, which was getting power from the farms, was also involved. Through research and ongoing discussions, the two sides reached an agreement that involved a long-term solution of using taller turbines, which are safer for raptors. In addition, according to an AWWI case study, “wind energy companies have contributed to raptor habitat restoration efforts.” Not only that, but “The lessons learned at Altamont have fostered a constructive partnership between the wind and wildlife communities.”

Protection Technology 

As with many other areas of life, technology can help too. Camera- and radar-based machines can detect and deter birds and bats with lights or sounds. Other units can determine when birds are about to intersect with a turbine and shut down the turbine before impact. Unfortunately, some of these innovations are still new and, therefore, expensive, meaning that wind farm operators must decide whether they can invest in these technologies and still remain competitive.

Continued Research and Data

The AWWI has developed the American Wind Wildlife Information Center (AWWIC), a “first-of-its-kind initiative to expand the analysis of wind-wildlife data to provide actionable insights that benefit not only future wind energy operations, but also the future of wildlife conservation.” Essentially, it’s a database cataloging bird and bat fatalities on and around wind farms. The data come from both public and confidential sources to encourage private companies to participate.  

All of these elements create a virtuous cycle that makes wind energy more viable over time: more data becomes available, contributing to further innovations, which yield specific results and additional data. Based on progress so far, the trajectory of greater success for wind power and greater safety for wildlife is likely to continue.

What do you know about the impact of wind power on wildlife? Please share in the comments.

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Geoff Thomas's picture
Geoff Thomas on Jun 19, 2019

I have heard that various wind farms have used different frequency sounds, - following the example of such for vermin from houses, - usually created by an electronic device, requiring electricity supply and so forth.

I have never seen an analysis or study on such, and would certainly welcome any info from fellow members, - even anecdotal.

As I play the Accordion, I am aware of the movement of air over the steel reeds of the accordion is what produces the sound, and that the tuning of the reed is what determines it's note, - eg pushing harder on the bellows increases the volume,    but the frequency is unchanged, and when I first moved my renewable Energy business to Cairns in Australia, not having much money in a new place, I used to busk, and my dog (a whippet), would howl every time, most creatively. - This was especially endearing to Japanese lady tourists who usually wanted to be photographed next to the howling/singing dog, (I was rarely in the picture, grr) but who dropped lots of money :), so I know that animals are strongly affected by particular notes and or combinations thereof.

I would imagine it would be relatively cheap and simple to acquire an old dead accordion and stick the reed (Reeds or combinations thereof), on it's holder, somewhere on the blade, (but wax would probably not be strong enough :) to hold it and see what effect it had on the local bird life?

The welcome trend of pushing the hub-height of turbines up towards 200 metres to extend the operational time element of the wind turbine, should also help reduce bird strikes but as the blade tips can not exceed the speed of sound, Blades now going over 110 metres long, gives many opportunities along that blade to place a tiny reed to drive the birds away.

Having said that, there was research on a 3 meg turbine in Sweden in a bird sanctuary that placed radar transmitters on birds so as to see if they avoided the blades, - which they mostly did, - most birds not being particularly stupid, perhaps setting up a Darwinian situation, as do speeding cars and glass windows in forest houses, - longer term research would be good on wind farms in that respect.  -  Pity there is no equivalent mechanism for voters who choose criminal politicians, if ever there would be any..

Perhaps we would end up with singing wind farms, like those meditation aids.

Cheers, Geoff.

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Karen Marcus on Jun 24, 2019

Geoff, thanks for your thoughtful and entertaining comments. I, too, would be interested in information from our colleagues about studies done on the effect of sound frequencies on animals to help protect them from turbines and other new energy technologies. 

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