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.”
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.
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.
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.