Gone with the Wind: The Threat Posed by Wind Turbines to the Surrounding Ecosystems

John Balsamo: Building and Construction Tech.

Will McKenney: Building and Construction Tech.

Jess Creighton: Animal Science

Jamie Lay: Wildlife Conservation

In the late 80’s, the California condor was officially extinct in the wild. With poaching, DDT, lead poisoning, and more general habitat destruction, one of the largest birds on the planet was driven to the brink.  As of the 2014 report, there are approximately 425 condors in total on the planet, easily ranking them among the rarest species, both in North America and globally (Wikipedia, 2015). Now might be the time to mention that most Condors are currently inhabiting an area only a few miles away from the majority of California’s wind farms. It might also be the time to mention that, in Spain, upwards of 2,000 vultures– a close relative with similar patterns and behaviors– are killed annually in wind turbine collisions (Duchamp, Lange & Wiegand, 2012). Both species are known to actually perch atop wind turbines, as the treachery of the blades is no match for a hungry bird in search of a good vantage point to roost and scope out a meal.  All of the moving parts involved, physically and metaphorically, seem like a disaster waiting to happen for a critically endangered species teetering on the edge of the precipice.

Expanding the view to the greater issue at hand, a 2013 study conducted by Smallwood (2013) estimates a grand total of 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats die every year across North America in ways which can directly be linked to wind farms,  the cause of death may be physical collisions, atmospheric disturbances, or otherwise. The raw numbers seem to suggest that wind technology as it is now negatively impacts a wide range of species. On top of everything else, Smallwood’s (2013) numbers indicate that bats seem to be negatively impacted with an even greater intensity, and despite their lack of visibility in the average person’s day-to-day life, it would be irresponsible of an actionable society to let that invalidate the risk these species are under.

A real tragedy for bats is that, between their dexterity in flight and their gift of echolocation, blade collision is a lesser issue for most species. However, the number of bat deaths each year is almost doubled by an affliction called barotrauma: where the animals fly into a “rapid air-pressure reduction near moving turbine blades” (Baerwald et al., 2008, p. 695).  When the bats enter this space, their lungs fail to quickly adjust to the drop in air pressure and, to be frank, their organs explode before they even have a chance to hit the turbines.

One writer, John Laumer (2006), presents an argument against the “myth” that wind turbines kill birds. In his argument, he concedes that a wind turbine averages about 2.19 bird deaths a year. Extrapolating this to each of the 49,000 turbines in the United States, the result is about 107,310 bird deaths each year. With such a lowball of Smallwood’s (2013) figures mentioned earlier, the discrepancy raises a few eyebrows. However, Laumer (2006) argues that cars take out millions of birds annually, and windows globally possess an avian body count upwards of a billion. By this logic, there is no need to worry about the few hundred thousand bird deaths each year caused by turbines, but it ought to be quite the opposite.

With billions dying to buildings and cars, fungal infections, predation, barotrauma, disease, climate change, habitat loss, hunting, and myriad smaller reasons, the threats to winged wildlife could go on for days. And while certainly, some species can shoulder the loss (a day in Boston will prove that pigeons, for example, probably have little to worry about), it’s not to say that the California Condor is the only bird at risk. The fact of the matter is that entirely preventable deaths are occurring at the hands of 40 year old wind technology with a model has yet to undergo any major metamorphoses, even though scientists and engineers have already put forth the necessary effort. It is within society’s power to streamline and optimize the designs we use until we create a technology that is both a green and environmentally safe, and we’re running out of excuses not to. After all, replacement research for wind turbines is already underway.

It is more than a general consensus around the scientific community that actions need to be taken toward controlling the amount of avian deaths due to wind turbine farms.  A new innovation was developed by a Spanish firm that proposes a bladeless wind turbine. The new wind turbine utilizes the power of magnetism with wind as a catalyst, while today’s popular model harnesses that same wind energy with the famous and problematic blades, such that the kinetic energy from their spinning can power a generator. (“Bladeless”, 2015). New innovations like this give us an edge. With a baseline provided by our previous work, it is within the power of our best and brightest to strive for improvement. The goal is to produce clean, green energy without negatively impacting the bat population and consequently affecting our ecosystem as a whole, and creations like the bladeless wind turbine might be a step in the right direction.

Because of the ecological damage caused by wind turbines to bird and bat species, we  propose the implementation of vertical axis wind turbines and stricter regulations for locations a new wind turbine could be built. Society needs to find ways to prevent wind turbines from killing both bats and birds. One way in which we can accomplish this is through new technologies that will help prevent bird and bat deaths at the hands of wind turbines. One option is instead of using large wind turbines located on wind farms, it would be more beneficial to use Small Wind Turbines or SWTs. SWTs are much smaller than standard wind turbines and have an average diameter of 4 meters and an average height of 10.2 meters. (Minderman et al., 2015) This shorter height and smaller diameter of blade means that there is a smaller chance of birds and bats colliding with either the blades or the main post. Minderman et al studied the frequency of bird and bat carcasses located in the vicinity of SWTs and found that although not completely prevented, bird and bat deaths were greatly diminished when SWTs are used in favor of larger turbines. (Minderman 2015).

Another technology that will prevent bats from getting killed by wind turbines is ultrasonic acoustic deterrents. Many bats use echolocation, which are high pitch frequencies that the bats emit and bounce off of insects and objects back to the bats ears. These frequencies let the bat know what is in front of it whether it be prey or an obstacles in it’s flight path. (Arnett 2015). Ultrasonic acoustic deterrents send out electromagnetic signals from small portable radar units that mimic the frequencies that bats use to avoid obstacles and send the message to stay away from a particular area. (Arnett 2015) Arnett et al found that by placing ultrasonic acoustic deterrents around wind turbines they were able to keep bats away thus preventing them from coming in contact with and getting killed by the turbines.

Society can also lessen the negative impact that wind turbines are having on bird and bat populations is through legislation. According to Smith (2015), Laws like the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (which protects over 1,000 species) all mean that anyone can be prosecuted for killing any of these birds. (pg. 36) All of these acts also hold the owners of wind turbines and wind farms responsible the same way they hold an individual citizen responsible. To best protect birds and bats, it’s imperative to ensure that when wind turbines are constructed they comply with all environmental protection acts and that infringements are punished. Under these acts, like the Endangered Species Act for example, violators can be fined $50,000 and/or one year imprisonment according to the Endangered Species Act Handbook. This puts pressure on owners of wind turbines to make sure that their wind turbines don’t violate any acts that protect endangered birds or bats because the penalties are harsh. If not for these laws and regulations and future laws and regulations energy companies would focus on being profitable over being environmentally friendly and society must ensure that corporations and individuals who operate wind turbines follow the guidelines of these acts and operate environmentally ethical wind farms.

Luke Whelan (2015) points out a valid reason to care about bats: they consume a vast number of insects each day. This has significant effects on crop production, and just as importantly, means that bats eat insects famous for carrying diseases. As Whelan(2015) also points out mosquitos help spread a wide range of illnesses such as, but not limited to: Dengue fever, yellow fever, multiple strands of encephalitis, and at their most devastating, West Nile Virus and malaria. If there are no bats left, there will be a larger prevalence of disease. Bats are also responsible for pollination of many species of plants, particularly flowering plants. These plants which the bats are pollinating then contribute to the biodiversity of their environment, and at the same time offer nectar to the ever vital bees which we have to thank for the well being of most major crops. In an indirect yet cyclical sense, protecting birds and bats is effectively protecting humanity.

Wind turbines are not all bad. They are providing a green alternative for fuel, which is something we desperately need because the natural resources we are currently using will not last forever, and what we are using, fossil fuels, cause a lot of environmental pollution which wind energy does not. So to get the good of the wind turbines and help to avoid the bad the type of wind turbines being used. Although wind turbines are a great source of energy that is both clean and renewable the impact they have on the populations of both birds and bats cannot be ignored. Birds and bats are integral parts of a healthy ecosystem that offer more benefits to humans than you may realize. Through the development of new technologies and enacting and enforcing laws and regulations we can maintain the benefits of using wind turbines as a source of renewable energy while simultaneously protecting birds and bats from getting killed.

Evan

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