Wind Turbines or Giant Bird Blenders?

Christian Boudria Animal Science, Jonathan Ennis Building Construction, Amanda Golen Environmental Science

 

With wind power becoming a leading source of energy production worldwide, this billion-dollar industry is expected to grow exponentially as countries progress more towards clean energy in the future. The United States Energy Department (2013) states “wind energy became the number one source of new U.S. electricity generation capacity for the first time – representing 43 percent of all new electric additions and accounting for $25 billion in U.S investment”(para. 1). This investment is expected to pay off by providing millions of Americans with clean energy, but at what cost? How clean of an energy source could it be? When looking up at these tall structures in the wind, we notice the lack of pollution flowing through the air or settling in our waters, but we fail to look at the ground. Beneath the spinning blades lay the injured and dead corpses of many different species of birds and bats. Each playing their own role in maintaining natural selection between each other, keeping the pests we hate off the ground, keeping the bugs that eat our crops and attack humans out of the air and pollinating all the vegetation that we consume for survival. When asking the question about developing more wind farms, we need to look at the cause and effect. When going to the supermarket we would expect shortages with our favorite produce and an abundance of insects and pestilence running about our communities. This puts people at risk for more diseases. With the everlasting problem of global warming, it would be detrimental to risk a decline in vegetation that pulls the CO2 out of the air. The real question we need to ask is whether or not we want to continue risking the lives of the birds and bats that help the human race survive. With recent observations and studies conducted it is a proven fact that wind turbines do kill birds and bats. In addition, there are past studies on what can help try and stop the bird/bat collisions and close encounters with these structures. Although not every avian creature out there is at risk of turbine related death, many that are included in these studies are ones that are very low in population and could be at risk of becoming totally extinct. Wind turbines pose a significant threat to certain bird and bat populations and should be further regulated in regards to placement, type, and speed and in some cases legal action.

 

One problem arising in California is how wind turbines pose a significant risk to endangered California Condors. These giant birds currently take the skies of the golden state and soon could be extinct with the help of wind turbines. The condors are one of the most endangered animals in the entire world with only 250 left in the wild (Fish and Wildlife Service, para. 3). With growing popularity of wind power, expansion will take place throughout the state. A big fear is that because the bird is so large and possesses such a wide wingspan, it can easily collide with the wind turbines. The article No Fine If Wind Farm Kills Endangered Condors asks the question “Should industrial wind facilities have to pay a $100,000 fine – as oil and gas companies do – if they kill an endangered species?”(para.1). When Oil companies see birds drown in their waste pits or electrical wires kill them, these businesses are charged a fine. As of now, wind turbine companies do not pay anything. While birds and especially California condors are dying, a push must happen for this change to prevent the growing fatalities. The method wind turbines want to use is to not change anything until a bird is harmed. They say that these birds carry trackers on them so they can prepare for when they get close with radar. Not all California condors hold these trackers meaning that we cannot ensure all of these birds will be protected. The California condor is one of the largest birds in the world and is historic to the region. Wind turbines should not cause this bird’s extinction and these regulations should be in place. Further examination of the region with the 100,000-dollar fine as incentive to fix the problem needs enforcement to protect the safety of these animals.

Wind turbines are one of the leading contributors to the future of clean, modern energy, as we know. The biggest variable for whether or not energy will be produced comes from how windy it will be that specific day. Thus, you would most likely prefer to place your turbine in a place where it is commonly windy. During observations of birds and bats, there are records of nesting atop turbines, hitting turbines directly and barotrauma. Grodsky et al., (2011) states that “[b]arotrauma at wind turbines occurs as follows: the moving blades of a wind turbine act as an airfoil, creating a region of low pressure along the top of the blade surface (i.e., most convex) and a spiraling vortex near the blade tips, which has a low pressure core”(p. 918). This then causes the ear canals and lungs of birds and bats explode due to the drop in air pressure created near the spinning wind turbines. As studies continued, the data began to become more specific by recording the energy output of the turbines in correlation to bird and bat fatalities.at the end of the study, the energy outputs were sent by month to become evaluated. Smallwood, K., Bell, D., Snyder, S. & Didonato, J. (2010) state that “allowing us to test a hypothesis that less efficient turbines, characterized by more intermittent operations, could be more dangerous to birds and, hence, of highest priority for removal or repowering”(p. 1090). This data was recorded, and scavenger removal trials were used as a control within the data. This means that scientists will literally walk the fields and pick up a set number of placed dead birds to see how accurate their data is. If they pick up 7 out of 10 birds the data would record 70 percent. Then when searching for the real casualties from wind turbines, we can then assume we are picking up 70% of the real data. The data was recorded by mortality of different species. When evaluating the data, it is shown that turbines that are less efficient, produce lower capacity or do not run as consistent because of the wind strike more birds and bats. Smallwood, K., Bell, D., Snyder, S. & Didonato, J. (2010) thus concluded “we found that fatalities/GWh increased at wind turbines with lower capacity factors, indicating that fatalities might be lessened by relocating less efficient turbines to sites where they will operate more often or by repowering them with modern, more efficient turbines”(p. 1096). This gives us the sufficient evidence to collaborate a plan which would standardize all turbines to run at a specific GWh.New machinery needs regulation for these pre existing wind turbines. If all turbines were active at this power production rate, it is proven fewer birds and bats would be subject to barotrauma, collisions and nesting.

When conducting these multiple studies researchers wanted to figure out what exactly was the reason for these bird and bat collisions. Birds and bat are found dead/injured with broken wings while also suffering from barotrauma. Visual documentation was provided with binoculars viewing these bird collisions while a different study was conducted for bats. Bats are a nocturnal mammal that only do majority of their flying at night. Grodsky et al., (2011) informs us that “[t]hermal infrared imagery has recorded bats being struck by the blades of wind turbines” (p. 918). This gives us hard, true visual evidence that it is not a coincidence for finding bat carcasses in the area but that wind turbines do directly cause these mortalities. What causes these animals to come close and encounter these collisions are two variables. Many different birds rely on wind current for flight. Many would assume that because both birds and bats flap their wings, that means that they are in the process of flying. Both species tend to use natural currents to glide over the land in search for food and to travel in migrations. The problem with a row of wind turbines is that with all the blades spinning at once in the middle of an air current to power them. The blades also cause their own diversion of natural wind currents which the birds also use. Barros and Rodriguez (2004) state that “Vulture collisions occurred in autumn–winter”… “[t]he absence of thermals in winter forced vultures to use slopes for lift, the most likely mechanism influencing both their exposure to turbines and mortality” (p. 73). The lack of heat means the birds will use wind drafts closer to the turbines to gain altitude causing for them to get struck instead of flying with the warmer air.

On the other hand, bats are generally lured to wind turbines for a specific reason. Observations show that insects gather around the wind turbines, which provides as a major food source for them. When dusk approaches it means that the amount of bats entering the air increases which leads to a higher risk of being hit. This first baffled scientists on why the mortality rates are so high because bats can echolocate, sending audio signals into the air. These bounce off of objects such as the turbines to allow the bats recognize their location and avoid them. This serves as their form of vision and biggest tool for hunting. Grodsky et al., (2011) shows that “Bat mortality at wind energy facilities is particularly perplexing because bats echolocate and presumably can detect the turbine and individual blades. However, the maximum range at which bats can echolocate is 20 m”… “Given a turbine blade rotation speed of 75 m/s, bats have approximately 0.25 s to react” (p. 918). This evidence shows that bat need more than a quarter of a second to actually echolocate the turbine and move out of the way from being struck. Even if the bat is able to move in such a very short amount of time, just being close to the blade when it swings by will most likely collapse its ear canals and lungs leading to an instant death. Smallwood (2013) estimates that “888,000 bats killed by wind turbines in the US annually” (p. 19). Wind turbine placement needs re-evaluation to save these bats from certain death. Zones that are being scouted for future wind turbine development need extensive surveying on the ecosystem around it. We need to check if it’s an environment that will hold a lot of bugs. Many bugs would lead to bat deaths and an environment for birds to hunt and live in. The idea of these building regulations will try and guide the development of wind turbines to the most ecologically barren, yet windy areas to keep bird and bat fatalities to a minimum.

Energy companies may argue that wind turbines are not the only structures killing birds and bats, and yes, they are right. However, why should we add to it by allowing these wind turbines to kill even more when there are measures that can reduce mortality? The loss of these animals can and will create detrimental impacts on our environment and us. Geological Survey research scientist Paul Cryan exclaims, “People often ask why we should care about bats…[t]his analysis suggests that bats are saving us big bucks by gobbling up insects that eat or damage our crops…[i]t is obviously beneficial that insectivorous bats are patrolling the skies at night above our fields and forests  —these bats deserve help.”(USGS para., 2)

Birds and bats are killed by turbines and will not save energy companies more money in the long run. These savings will increase the expenses of insect and pest control. The value of the pest-control services to agriculture provided by bats in the U.S. alone range from $3.7 billion to $53 billion a year (USGS para.,3). This is a number estimated by the study’s authors; Paul Cryan, Gary McCracken, Thomas Kunz, scientists from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), USGS, University of Tennessee and Boston University. These scientists speculate that noticeable economic losses to North American agriculture could occur in the next 4 to 5 years as a result of emerging threats to bat populations (para.,3).

White-nose Syndrome (WNS) is a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in North America. The article White-nose Syndrome by Bat Conservation International states that WNS is caused by a fungus, accidentally transported by humans, from Eurasia. The fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, invades the skin of hibernating bats and disrupts both their hydration and hibernation cycles (para.,1). The bats repeatedly wake up during their winter hibernation, leading them to burn up limited fat reserves. The bats are often forced to leave hibernation sites in late winter, dehydrated and in search of food, often leading to death (para., 2). The fungus is most often transmitted from bat to bat and is found in 26 US states and five Canadian provinces to date (para.,3). The fungus that causes WNS is found in four more US states (para.,3). Although WNS is known to affect hibernating bats, seven species of bats are diagnosed with the disease and five additional species are found with the fungus, but have not developed the disease (para.,4). WNS has killed at least 5.7 million bats since it arrived in North America (circa 2006) according to Bat Conservation International (para.,5). Since bats are the primary predators of night-flying insects, it is expected that we will see negative impacts to ecosystem changes in the near future. The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), for example, was once the most common bat in North America; today, it is being considered for protection under the US Endangered Species Act (para.,5).

A study conducted in North Carolina tracked bat populations that were diagnosed with the white nose fungus. These researchers noticed that “some infected locations showing up to a 95 percent decline in hibernating bats over the past one to two years”(White-nose syndrome decimates North Carolina’s bats, para. 2). Studying the North Carolina region is important because it gives us a controlled example of the devastating brutality this fungus imposes on the bat population. In one specific location studied, the population before the 2 year observation was 1,000 bats. At the end of the study, this population dwindled down to only 65 bats. This white-nose syndrome caused this major decline in population. With such a decrease in population, more fatalities cannot be afforded by wind turbines. This fungus wiped out 93.5% of this individual population and is spreading throughout the world. Harsh regulations and fines must be in place to protect these bats because without them our country’s food source will be terminated and our pestilence/disease will skyrocket.

Although main problems caused by wind turbines seem to stem most commonly from site placement, turbine type and blade speed there are also factors that companies are looking into to further prevent this from happening. “The industry is collaborating with wildlife researchers on promising technologies and approaches that are already being field-tested, and on some experimental and even far-fetched ideas that could help reduce mortality in the long term.”(Doulin, 2014).  Doulin (2014) says through these collaborative efforts, 8 possible improvements have been developed that could possibly be applied to these wind farms. Included in those are the three main issues mentioned above along with additional great ideas. Using special equipment that utilizes technology such as radar, GPS tracking and ultrasonic acoustics gives wind turbines a head up on when to operate differently to not kill them. This equipment can also be used to make birds and bats more aware of the turbines they might be coming in contact with. Physical alterations like colorfully painting the exteriors of turbines can deter collision. Similarly, certain turbine styles discourage birds and make it difficult for them to nest on or in them, which would be putting them directly in harm’s way. Sensors that would let the turbine know it has been struck by oncoming creatures could allow it to shut off until the population passed. “Reducing wind development’s impact on endangered species and other wildlife would help the industry avoid problems with the federal government and boost wind power’s public image.” (Doulin 2014). With innovative ideas and sophisticated technology safer wind turbines are seeming more and more feasible.

 

As long as the need for energy exists, new and clean alternatives will be needed and used to fulfill this growing field. Wind turbines provide as a great alternative. Their popularity is growing and more are being manufactured and put to use. It is no argument that these are profitable in many aspects from the amount of clean energy they produce to the money they make the owners. To think that there would be any kind of cooperation if asked to remove them seems very unlikely. This brings us to the next best option. Work with the turbines and not against them. With all the studies showing fatalities connected to placement, blade speed, and turbine type, new and existing wind farms can be made safer by fine tuning these factors where needed. With set guidelines, companies building turbines must abide by these set forth conditions or will face legal action. By cutting down these death tolls, endangered bird and bat populations can be saved, that are very beneficial to pest control and pollination everywhere. This will save the economy billions. With changes made and regulations put into place to ensure that turbines can be made safe for avian populations, there will be little to no reason as to why they should not continue using them as an effective alternative energy. Wind turbines do what they are intended by providing millions with clean energy. Unfortunately, the lack of foresight on environmental impacts has left certain species at risk and now it is time to fix the problem created.

References

Smallwood, K.,(2013). Comparing bird and bat fatality-rate estimates among North American wind-energy projects. Wildlife Society Bulletin,(37) 1, 19-33. Doi: 10.1002/wsb.260

Bats Worth Billions to Agriculture: Pest-control Services at Risk. (2011, March 3). Retrieved from http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=2743#.Vj64qjZdGP9

Barrios, L & Rodriguez, A, (2004). Behavioral and environmental correlates of soaring-bird mortality at on-shore wind turbines. Journal of applied technology, 41, 72-81. Retrieved from web of science.

 

Doulin, R. (2014, January 3).For the birds (and the bats): 8 ways wind power companies are trying to prevent deadly collisions. Retrieved  from http://grist.org/climate-energy/for-the-birds-and-the-bats-8-ways-wind-power-companies-are-trying-to-prevent-deadly-collisions/

 

Energy Dept. Reports: U.S. Wind Energy Production and Manufacturing Reaches Record Highs. (2013, August 6). Retrieved from http://energy.gov/articles/energy-dept-reports-us-wind-energy-production-and-manufacturing-reaches-record-highs

Grodsky, S., Behr, M., Gendler, A., Drake, D., Dieterle, B., Rudd, R., & Walrath, N.(2011). Investigating the causes of death for wind turbine-associated bat fatalities. Journal of Mammalogy, 92, 917-925. Retrieved from Web of Science.

Lewis, M. (2013, May 17). No Fine If Wind Farm Kills Endangered Condors — Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved from http://www.globalwarming.org/2013/05/17/no-fine-if-wind-farm-kills-endangered-condors-fish-and-wildlife-service/

White-nose Syndrome Decimates North Carolina’s Bats.(2013, April 29). Retrieved from http://www.ncwildlife.org/News/NewsArticle/tabid/416/IndexId/8995/Default.aspx

White-nose system introduction. Retrieved from http://www.batcon.org/index.php/our-work/regions/usa-canada/address-serious-threats/wns-intro

 

Evan

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