Tilting at Windmills

Wind and solar energy may be our best bet against fossil fuels. Can that justify their grave cost to wildlife?

Michael Hutchins and Rebecca Leber September 19, 2016

Wind turbines in Cabazon, Calif.: clean energy, bird killers, or both? (David McNew/Getty Images)

Our fos­sil fuel addic­tion pos­es a grave threat to bio­di­ver­si­ty: flood­ing coast­lines, acid­i­fy­ing oceans, severe droughts and oth­er effects of cli­mate change are threat­en­ing already hard-pressed habi­tats. In this con­text, cli­mate activists have embraced wind and solar pow­er, which are less con­tro­ver­sial than oth­er alter­na­tive ener­gy sources such as nuclear, bio­fu­els and dams. But wildlife advo­cates have urged cau­tion.

More birds will die as renewable energy grows. But what happens to these animals if the world falls short of its ambitions to limit climate change?

In recent months, envi­ron­men­tal­ists have chal­lenged a pro­posed off­shore wind farm that could dis­rupt whale migra­tion and mul­ti­ple solar projects that require cut­ting down for­est. In the Cal­i­for­nia desert, a pro­posed solar plant was reject­ed to pro­tect bighorn sheep. Just last week, the Burea of Land Man­age­ment approved a long-await­ed plan to appor­tion pub­lic lands in that region between con­ser­va­tion and renew­able ener­gy devel­op­ment — a plan that dis­ap­point­ed solar com­pa­nies and was cel­e­brat­ed by wildlife groups, although some envi­ron­men­tal­ists still think it did­n’t go far enough. Bird con­ser­va­tion­ists have been cri­tiquing wind tur­bines for decades.

Despite these con­cerns, many argue that ramp­ing up wind and solar as quick­ly as pos­si­ble is ulti­mate­ly what’s best for birds, whales, trees and sheep — not to men­tion humans. To dis­cuss how to think about wind and solar’s envi­ron­men­tal impacts in the age of cli­mate change, In These Times brought togeth­er Michael Hutchins, direc­tor of Amer­i­can Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Smart Wind Ener­gy Cam­paign, and Rebec­ca Leber, a cli­mate jour­nal­ist who has worked for Grist, The New Repub­lic and ThinkProgress.

MICHAEL: Cli­mate change is undoubt­ed­ly impact­ing our plan­et. How­ev­er, even if we agree that wind and solar ener­gy will play a role in address­ing cli­mate change, how we deploy them is impor­tant. We must do a bet­ter job of reg­u­lat­ing these rapid­ly grow­ing indus­tries to avoid seri­ous impacts on irre­place­able wildlife. 

Birds and bats are the pri­ma­ry vic­tims of these renew­ables. In 2012 — when there were far few­er wind tur­bines than there are today—esti­mates ranged as high as 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats killed annu­al­ly by the fast-spin­ning blades in the Unit­ed States alone. Large, reflec­tive solar arrays look like lakes to some birds, who crash into them when they try to land. Some solar facil­i­ties reflect con­cen­trat­ed beams of light, scorch­ing birds as they fly by.

Ener­gy infra­struc­ture kills birds too: Road devel­op­ment can dis­place wildlife, alter habi­tats and inter­fere with ani­mal repro­duc­tion. Pow­er lines and tow­ers take out tens of mil­lions of birds each year through elec­tro­cu­tion or collision.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, while we have esti­mates, we don’t know pre­cise­ly how many birds and bats are lost at wind facil­i­ties. This is because wind ener­gy com­pa­nies refuse to share this infor­ma­tion with the pub­lic. Remark­ably, except in Hawaii, all fatal­i­ty data are col­lect­ed by paid con­sul­tants to the wind indus­try — a direct con­flict of inter­est. Two com­pa­nies recent­ly sued to keep their data secret. 

Wind ener­gy com­pa­nies are sup­posed to con­duct stud­ies before they build their facil­i­ties to deter­mine how risky they’ll be to wildlife. But these stud­ies, too, are car­ried out by paid con­sul­tants. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, inde­pen­dent researchers have found that pre-con­struc­tion risk stud­ies often under­es­ti­mate the num­bers and types of ani­mals that actu­al­ly die once the tur­bines are oper­a­tional. As a result, more than 30,000 tur­bines have either been built or are planned for sen­si­tive areas for birds, includ­ing 5,500 exist­ing and 18,518 planned in the whoop­ing crane migra­to­ry cor­ri­dor. There are few­er than 500 of these endan­gered birds left in the wild.

Birds and bats per­form essen­tial ecosys­tem ser­vices, such as pest con­trol, pol­li­na­tion and seed dis­per­sal, and are worth bil­lions to the U.S. econ­o­my. They also eat mos­qui­tos, which are vec­tors of Zika and oth­er diseases.

We should absolute­ly devel­op wind and solar ener­gy, but we could be doing so much bet­ter. Renew­able ener­gy devel­op­ment has got­ten way ahead of the reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work. Let’s enforce our wildlife pro­tec­tion laws and estab­lish no-build zones in areas that are espe­cial­ly crit­i­cal to birds and bats, such as major migra­to­ry routes and key breed­ing habi­tats. The Great Lakes are a prime exam­ple. Recent radar stud­ies have shown vast num­bers of migra­to­ry birds and bats mov­ing through this area in the spring and fall, fre­quent­ly fly­ing with­in the rotor-swept zones of wind tur­bines. Yet many devel­op­ers are plan­ning to build even more tur­bines close to the shore­lines and off­shore, plac­ing our wildlife at sub­stan­tial risk.

When it comes to wind and solar ener­gy, prop­er place­ment is every­thing. Let’s keep them out of crit­i­cal wildlife areas.

REBEC­CA: Humans put a lot of stress on wildlife. Like you say, renew­able ener­gy is one source of it. Also on the list of dan­gers to birds are tall build­ings, cars, cats and — by the way — the coal, oil and gas indus­tries. With all that con­sid­ered, wind and solar ener­gy fall far down on the list of threats.

But the real­i­ties fac­ing wildlife right now hard­ly com­pare to what hap­pens if we don’t address the biggest stres­sor of them all — cli­mate change. Like you say, more birds will die as renew­able ener­gy grows. Except there’s some miss­ing con­text there: What hap­pens to these ani­mals if the world falls short of its ambi­tions to lim­it cli­mate change?

If we don’t act, or we do too lit­tle to stop ris­ing green­house gas emis­sions, the world could warm by more than 4 degrees Cel­sius by the end of the cen­tu­ry. This would be dev­as­tat­ing for wildlife: Esti­mates vary wide­ly, but 2015 study pub­lished by evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist Mark Urban in Sci­ence finds that one in six species could face extinction.

If we do act, and replace fos­sil fuels with renew­able pow­er, we might just have a shot at lim­it­ing warm­ing to the world’s agreed-upon goal of 2 degrees Cel­sius. Then, species will still be at risk — but it will be about one in 20, accord­ing to Urban’s study. This is still a lot, but it means there’s a huge dif­fer­ence between doing noth­ing and tak­ing action. 

For birds specif­i­cal­ly, the Nation­al Audubon Soci­ety expects almost half of all North Amer­i­can bird species to be threat­ened by cli­mate change. Around 20 per­cent of bird species will see their range decrease by 2050, and anoth­er 32 per­cent could be added to that num­ber by 2080.

We’re just begin­ning to see cli­mate change play out in the real world. One unset­tling aspect of the prob­lem is how it will sig­nif­i­cant­ly exac­er­bate ongo­ing bio­di­ver­si­ty loss, increas­ing the poten­tial for a mass extinc­tion. Just this year, cli­mate change claimed its first mam­mal extinc­tion: a rodent called the Bram­ble Cay melomys, which was native to an island in the Great Bar­ri­er Reef.

Con­ser­va­tion efforts of the past and present have often been focused on tar­get­ed cam­paigns to pro­tect threat­ened species from what­ev­er obsta­cle humans have thrown in their way. But cli­mate change is a dif­fer­ent kind of chal­lenge than we’re used to. It changes entire regions and habi­tats by alter­ing rain­fall, melt­ing glac­i­ers, rais­ing tem­per­a­tures and more. It harms all kinds of ani­mals — includ­ing us.

Wind and solar don’t just play a small role in the world’s response to ris­ing car­bon pol­lu­tion — they are a pri­ma­ry strat­e­gy. Replac­ing the Unit­ed States’ reliance on fos­sil fuels will require hun­dreds of thou­sands of new wind tur­bines, not to men­tion tens of thou­sands of new solar plants (not includ­ing rooftop), accord­ing to Stan­ford engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor Mark Jacobson.

That’s a lot of wind and solar we need to build in the next few decades.

MICHAEL: One of the most com­mon excus­es for the rapid, inad­e­quate­ly reg­u­lat­ed growth of com­mer­cial wind and solar facil­i­ties is that they are far down the list of bird killers. Fer­al cats, tall build­ings, pes­ti­cides and oth­er ener­gy sources take a greater toll.

But wildlife loss­es from renew­able ener­gy are still not triv­ial, and they’re grow­ing. Bird fatal­i­ties from wind tur­bines alone could reach sev­er­al mil­lion annu­al­ly if and when wind pro­vides 35 per­cent of our elec­tri­cal pow­er. And for some rare or endan­gered species, like whoop­ing cranes, even a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of deaths can threat­en an entire population.

The North Amer­i­can Bird Con­ser­va­tion Initiative’s 2016 State of the Birds report con­clud­ed that ful­ly one third of our native bird species will require focused con­ser­va­tion action to ensure their future. Renew­able ener­gy may just be one part of human­i­ty’s cumu­la­tive impact on birds, but this isn’t the time to blow off or weak­en reg­u­la­tions on threats of any sort.

Yes, warm­ing is one of those threats, but con­ser­va­tion ecol­o­gist Sean Maxwell and col­leagues, writ­ing in Nature, have recent­ly ques­tioned the grow­ing ten­den­cy of the media to focus exclu­sive­ly on the dan­gers of cli­mate change. Their analy­sis of 8,000 species showed that the most imme­di­ate threat to bio­di­ver­si­ty and ecosys­tems is not cli­mate change, but over­ex­ploita­tion and agri­cul­ture. They con­clude that attempts to deal with cli­mate change should not over­shad­ow more imme­di­ate pri­or­i­ties for the sur­vival of the world’s flo­ra and fau­na.” As we address warm­ing we need to make sure we actu­al­ly have wildlife left to save.

Hydro­elec­tric dams were once tout­ed as clean, renew­able ener­gy. Now they’re being torn down because of their neg­a­tive impacts on wildlife, such as inter­fer­ing with salmon migra­tion and depriv­ing delta habi­tats of essen­tial silt deposits. With­out prop­er reg­u­la­tion and mon­i­tor­ing, com­mer­cial wind and solar facil­i­ties may prove equal­ly misguided.

Many peo­ple view large-scale wind and solar ener­gy as our only hope against green­house gas emis­sions, but alter­na­tive approach­es exist: for exam­ple, for­est, wet­land and bio­di­ver­si­ty con­ser­va­tion, increased ener­gy effi­cien­cy and a reduc­tion in meat con­sump­tion. We can also dis­trib­ute solar pan­els across our already built envi­ron­ment; we have the tech­nol­o­gy now to put solar on roads and in win­dows. In aggre­gate, these alter­na­tives could be as effec­tive as — but far less destruc­tive to wildlife than — large, poor­ly placed com­mer­cial wind and solar projects.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Ener­gy and the wind ener­gy indus­try should also sup­port the devel­op­ment of blade­less, bird- and bat-friend­ly wind-ener­gy tech­nol­o­gy, though they’ve shown lit­tle inter­est in doing so. Entre­pre­neurs like Sheer­Wind, Kohi­lo and IceWind have been test­ing safer alter­na­tives, and as they become com­mer­cial­ly avail­able, indus­try will have even less of an excuse to con­tin­ue build­ing the more lethal variety.

If we can use bet­ter place­ment, improved tech­nol­o­gy and alter­nate cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies to reduce wildlife mor­tal­i­ty, why wouldn’t we? Too many peo­ple have embraced renew­able ener­gy with­out ask­ing the hard questions.

REBEC­CA: There was one sta­tis­tic in the August Nature study you cit­ed that jumped out to me: Cli­mate change is cur­rent­ly affect­ing 19 per­cent of threat­ened and near-threat­ened species.

As glob­al aver­age tem­per­a­tures rise above the 1 degree Cel­sius aver­age warm­ing we’ve already expe­ri­enced, that per­cent­age will climb high­er. Warm­ing is not a sta­t­ic threat, and will throw new obsta­cles in the way of humans and wildlife. In fact, the authors acknowl­edge cli­mate change will be an increas­ing­ly dom­i­nant prob­lem in the bio­di­ver­si­ty crisis.”

Cli­mate change already ranks as a big­ger threat than ener­gy pro­duc­tion, which encom­pass­es oil, coal and renewables.

The top threats to wildlife here, like overzeal­ous log­ging and agri­cul­ture, also hap­pen to be caus­es of cli­mate change — but we can’t set aside wind and solar pow­er in favor of focus­ing sole­ly on defor­esta­tion and non-fos­sil fuel caus­es. The Unit­ed States, which still gets about a third of its elec­tric­i­ty from coal-fired pow­er plants, is going to need to run on clean­er pow­er sources, and so will oth­er coun­tries. To meet glob­al cli­mate goals, we need an alter­na­tive source that can com­pete with fos­sil fuels on cost and reli­a­bil­i­ty. Wind and solar are get­ting there fast.

On your last point, that too many embrace renew­ables with­out look­ing hard at their con­se­quences, you have an unlike­ly ally: Don­ald Trump. Hear me out: Trump assert­ed this sum­mer that wind kills all your birds. All your birds, killed. You know, the envi­ron­men­tal­ists nev­er talk about that.” (In that speech, he also bragged, I know a lot about solar.”)

Clear­ly, look­ing at our own dis­cus­sion and oth­ers, envi­ron­men­tal­ists do talk about that, and many are tak­ing this issue seri­ous­ly. Just look at what the wind indus­try has done vol­un­tar­i­ly in the past few years, imple­ment­ing sev­er­al reforms to reduce bird deaths, like shut­ting down at cer­tain times and using radar to detect approach­ing flocks. That’s thanks to envi­ron­men­tal­ist pres­sure, and more birds and bats are bet­ter off for it.

But it’s impor­tant to con­sid­er the con­text in which these issues are brought up, so we don’t play into rightwing talk­ing points. If we are seri­ous about cli­mate change — which the Repub­li­cans cer­tain­ly aren’t — we can’t use wildlife as an excuse to oppose all poli­cies sup­port­ing renew­able growth or cli­mate action. That’s what Trump and oth­er con­ser­v­a­tives have tried to do, and in the same breath, they argue that it’s bet­ter to just wait and see if cli­mate change is real­ly so bad. They say it isn’t worth the cost now.

There are huge poten­tial costs to future gen­er­a­tions we must con­sid­er, too. One of the most humane things we can do for future wildlife is to do all we can now to pre­vent glob­al warm­ing from spi­ral­ing out of control.

Michael Hutchins is the direc­tor of Amer­i­can Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Smart Wind Ener­gy Cam­paign. Rebec­ca Leber is an edi­tor at Grist, and pre­vi­ous­ly worked at the New Repub­lic and ThinkProgress.
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