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

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.

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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