Wildlife & Environment

 

Wind power today is a mainstream electricity generation technology. As a renewable energy source, wind power also comes with many environmental benefits, from cleaner air and water to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. These benefits sustain people, wildlife, and the planet on which we live.

 

Expanding the use of wind power improves environmental conditions for us all because unlike conventional energy sources, wind power produces no harmful emissions or hazardous wastes and requires no mining or drilling of fuel for its operation. Wind power generation also does not consume any water and thereby conserves this vital resource.

 

Possible impacts on wildlife from wind energy projects are bird and bat collisions and habitat effects. Impacts on birds are not unique to wind power and are small relative to other causes of bird mortality. For example, in a 2007 study the National Academy of Sciences estimated that wind power was responsible for less than 0.003% (3 of every 100,000) of bird deaths caused by humans and pets.

 

The wind industry approaches wildlife issues proactively and is working to prevent and reduce impacts from wind project siting. The industry is confident that wind power and wildlife can coexist as wind power continues to grow, thereby helping maintain a healthier environment for all.

American Wind and Wildlife Institute

Wildlife Near Wind Energy

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), “Accelerated climate change is the single biggest threat to wildlife. It is impacting all ecosystems, habitats, and species – not just those identified as imperiled.” Wildlife also faces many other threats resulting from human activities, such as pollution and loss and degradation of habitat. These threats can often be compounded by the impacts of climate change.

 

As a fuel-free, inexhaustible, domestic and readily available source of energy, wind power has an important role to play in addressing climate change and in improving environmental conditions for wildlife. Even so, since wind energy projects are often located in rural, unpopulated areas of the United States where wildlife is also found, some impact is unavoidable. Bird and bat collisions and direct and indirect habitat effects are the primary impacts associated with wind projects.

 

For example, a recent National Wind Coordinating Collaborative (NWCC) review of peer-reviewed research found evidence of bird and bat deaths from collisions, as well as habitat loss or disruption (NWCC 2010). Bats can perhaps also be killed by barotrauma, a phenomenon that may be caused by rapid pressure changes as they fly through the area where the blades turn. The research surveyed by the NWCC concluded that the impact on birds is relatively low at the vast majority of locations and does not pose a threat to species populations. Bat fatalities remain a concern because they are higher than levels observed for birds and little is known about the population status of bats. For example, biologists investigating bat behavior noted that bats are most active when wind speeds are low and insects are most abundant. The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative found that feathering turbine blades during times of low wind speeds reduces bat deaths by more than half with minor losses of power production. Research is continuing on this promising minimization technique (Arnett et al. 2010).

 

In addition, in March 2012 the FWS published voluntary guidelines for land-based wind energy projects. As stated by FWS, “As the Nation shifts to renewable energy production to supplant the needs for carbon-based fuel, wind energy will be an important source of power. As wind energy production increases, both developers and wildlife agencies have recognized the need for a system to evaluate and address the potential negative impacts on species of concern.” The voluntary guidelines, which were developed by the Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee, provide “a structured, scientific process for addressing wildlife conservation concerns at all stages of land-based wind energy development…and form the best practical approach for conserving species of concern.”

 

More Information

American Wind Wildlife Institute

To advance practical solutions and to tackle challenges at scale, the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) was founded in 2008 by 20 top science-based conservation and environmental groups and wind companies to facilitate timely and responsible development of wind power while protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat. To accomplish this mission, AWWI offers a forum for dialogue where wind energy industry, national conservation organization, and wildlife agency partners forge solutions that are grounded in science. AWWI also pursues its mission through research based on peer review, mapping, mitigation, and public education on best practices in wind project siting and wildlife habitat protection. In addition to extensive resources on its website, AWWI offers the Landscape Assessment Tool, a general screening tool using publicly available data to provide up-to-date information about the environmental characteristics and important landscape-level wildlife values of a geographic area. New developments reach conservation, industry, government, academic and other stakeholders, as well as the public, through AWWI’s partnerships and through AWWI’s facilitation of the NWCC.

 

Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative

Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, AWEA, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory formed the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative (BWEC) in 2003. BWEC has researched the issue of bat fatalities at wind energy projects and is actively investigating several promising techniques to reduce these numbers, such as operational changes and deterrent devices. The wind industry is also helping to fund research on White-Nose Syndrome, a disease that has devastated cave-dwelling bats in the Northeast.

 

Natural Resources Defense Council

In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council created the Renewable Energy and Defense Geospatial Database, a mapping and analytic tool to help project developers identify possible barriers to a proposed project location, including any endangered or threatened wildlife species near the proposed project site. The system will be free to developers if they sign a licensing agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Natural Resources Defense Council is a founding partner of the American Wind Wildlife Institute.

Wind Energy & Birds

Do wind energy projects harm birds? Incidental losses of individual birds at turbine sites occur, but they will always be an extremely small fraction of bird deaths caused by human activities.The reality is that wind power is far less harmful to birds than the fossil fuels it displaces. In fact, the Audubon Society states that “climate change is the greatest threat to birds and biodiversity since humans have been on the planet.” Audubon’s position on wind power is that the organization strongly supports properly sited wind turbines.

 

Here are the facts about wind energy and birds:

  • Wind is the only source of energy that does not present population-level risks to birds, according to a study (PDF 1.7 MB) of coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, and wind power conducted by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
  • According to a National Academy of Sciences report, wind turbines are estimated to cause less than three out of every 100,000 human-related bird deaths in the United States and will never cause more than a very small fraction no matter how extensively wind power is used in the future.
  • According to a USDA Forest Service study (PDF), wind power causes far fewer bird fatalities (approximately 108,000 a year) than buildings (550 million), power lines (130 million), cars (80 million), poisoning by pesticides (67 million), domestic cats (at least 10 million), and radio and cell towers (4.5 million).

 

More Information

Erickson, W.P.; Wolfe, M.M.; Bay, K.J.; Johnson, D. H.; Gehring, J.L. (2014). A Comprehensive Analysis of Small-Passerine Fatalities from Collision with Turbines at Wind Energy Facilities. This comprehensive peer-reviewed study provides the most detailed analysis to date of the impact of bird fatalities at wind energy facilities in North America and is the first to measure the relative impact of those fatalities on populations of small passerines, including songbirds.

 

National Wildlife Federation

In a report titled Shifting Skies: Migratory Birds in a Warming World. Urgent Action Needed to Protect Birds and their Habitat (PDF 8.5 MB), the National Wildlife Federation details how a warming climate could lead to a decline in some bird populations and even some extinctions if action is not taken to curb carbon pollution and adopt climate-smart conservation strategies.

 

National Wind Coordinating Collaborative

The Altamont Pass in northern California was one of the first wind projects installed and remains the only wind development area in the United States that experiences significant bird deaths, specifically raptors or birds of prey. In 1994, shortly after raptor deaths in the Altamont Pass became a general concern, the wind energy industry joined with government officials, environmental groups, and utilities to form the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative (NWCC), aimed at addressing the avian issue as well as others affecting the industry’s future. NWCC sponsors meetings and academic papers to further understanding of wind energy’s wildlife impacts and provides updates to the environmental community about the latest wind-related research, along with events related to the biological significance of wind’s impacts. The NWCC formed the Grassland Community Collaborativeand the Sage Grouse Research Collaborative and also sponsored a wind project permitting handbook. The NWCC is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and is facilitated by the American Wind Wildlife Institute.

 

Sandercock, B. (May 2013). Environmental Impacts of Wind Power Development on the Population Biology of Greater Prairie-Chickens. A 7-year study by Kansas State University researchers shows that developing wind farms in Kansas has had little effect on the state’s prairie chicken population.

Wind Energy & Environment

Compared to the environmental impact of traditional energy sources, the environmental impact of wind power is relatively minor. Wind power consumes no fuel and no water and, unlike fossil fuel power sources, has no emissions directly related to electricity production. The energy consumed to manufacture and transport the materials used to build a wind power plant is equal to the new energy produced by the plant within a few months. While a wind energy facility may encompass a large area of land, many land uses such as agriculture and ranching are compatible because turbine foundations and infrastructure have small footprints.

 

Diversifying our electricity generation portfolio with wind power is an affordable, readily available way to generate electricity in a climate-responsible way that also protects human health and our environment.

 

Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Electricity generation is the largest industrial source of air pollution in the United States, and demand for electricity continues to grow. The United States produces 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually. By 2030, this number could reach 6.75 billion metric tons. Forty percent of CO2 emissions are generated by the electric power sector.

 

Because wind power generates no emissions and displaces CO2 and other greenhouse gases that would otherwise be emitted by fossil fuel-fired electric generation, the clean generation provided by wind capacity displaces millions of tons of CO2 annually. In fact, the 167.7 million megawatt-hours generated by wind energy in 2013 avoided an estimated 95.6 million metric tons of CO2—the equivalent of reducing power-sector CO2 emissions by 4.4% or removing 16.9 million cars from the road.

 

Reduced Water Use

Because power plants require cooling water, the electricity sector accounts for almost half of all U.S. water withdrawals—more than agricultural irrigation, municipal water supplies, and household use combined (Union of Concerned Scientists 2011). In 2005, U.S. coal, nuclear, and natural gas plants used more than 100 billion gallons of freshwater per day. In addition, as much as 1.7 trillion gallons are lost to evaporation each year (DOE 2008). Power plant cooling systems also draw in and kill billions of fish per year and harm other marine life when cooling water is returned to waterways at dangerously high tempera­tures (EPA 2011).

 

In contrast, wind power uses virtually no water. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) calculates that generating 20% of the country’s electricity from wind energy by 2030 would reduce the electricity sector’s cumulative water consumption by 8%, saving 4 trillion gallons over 20 years. About 30% of these savings would occur in western states, where water scarcity is an ongoing concern and projected to worsen (Karl, Melillo, and Peterson 2009; DOE 2008). And according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, replacing aging coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants with renewable energy would ease the pressure on dwindling water resources while cutting carbon emissions. By 2050, the power sector could slash its water use by about 97% and its carbon emissions by about 90% from today’s levels if more investments are made in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

 

Wind energy is already saving precious water resources. In 2013, generation reductions at fossil fuel-powered plants as a result of wind energy generation led to water consumption savings of 36.5 billion gallons of water – the equivalent of roughly 116 gallons per person in the United States or conserving the equivalent of 276 billion bottles of water.

 

Learn more about water use by energy generation type in this article (PDF 148 KB) from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

 

Clean Air

Wind turbines operate without emitting air pollutants.  Generating electricity from wind therefore helps the nation meet its electricity demand while also avoiding the health damages that can come with conventional power generation.

 

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has calculated that electricity generation in the United States, mainly from coal plants, comes with a hidden cost of more than $60 billion annually in health damages from air pollution. Such pollution includes emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates, which combine to form smog. Unhealthy levels of these pollutants place people at risk for decreased lung function, asthma, respiratory infection, lung inflammation, and aggravation of respiratory illness, according to the NAS and the American Lung Association.

 

No Water Pollution or Waste

Coal burned in power plants is the leading source of human-caused emissions of mercury, which eventually becomes concentrated in fish, such as tuna and swordfish, and can cause brain damage when ingested by young children and birth defects when ingested by women of child-bearing age.

 

Coal plants also produce solid waste containing heavy metals and other toxic substances that can contaminate drinking water supplies and harm local eco­systems if not disposed of safely. In December 2008, a dike burst at a Tennessee power plant’s impound­ment pond, sending an estimated 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry into the Emory River, damaging homes and fouling the water with arsenic, selenium, and mercury (Barton 2010; EPA 2009).

 

Similarly, spent nuclear fuel contains highly radioactive waste that requires hundreds of thousands of years to decay to the point where it becomes harm­less. It also contains large quantities of less radioactive, yet still dangerous, waste (NRC 2010).

 

Land Use Compatibility

The turbines and related infrastructure of a wind energy project occupy just 2% to 5% of the project area, leaving at least 95% of the land free for other uses (AWEA 2009). Wind turbines around the world coexist safely with schools, highways, hiking trails, and farms.

 

The direct footprint of a wind turbine is relatively small: a typical 1.5-megawatt turbine measures about 15 feet across its base, and its concrete foundation (set underground) measures about 30 feet per side. In the area immediately surrounding the turbine, vegetation must be cleared to allow for maintenance and overhead transmission lines, if needed in remote locations. Developers also use some land to build access roads.

 

Wind turbines are usually spaced 5 to 10 rotor diameters apart, depending on the terrain, to maximize performance (Denholm et al. 2009). This can mean as little as 32 acres per megawatt in rolling terrain or up to 50 acres per megawatt in flat areas, with most of that land remaining available for other uses.