Wind farms touted as 'green' energy source but have impact on birds

Wind farms touted as 'green' energy source but have impact on birds »Play Video
The Klondike wind farm owned by Iberdrola Renewables near Wasco, Ore. in Sherman County.

Touted as a green solution to feed our nation’s hunger for energy, wind farms are also blamed for killing millions of birds.

Figures vary, but wind industry groups and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist estimate that between 200,000 and 440,000 birds are killed nationwide each year by wind farms. The number is expected to reach as much as one million per year by 2030.

Some environmental groups, which often cheer on renewable energy, have criticized the wind industry for not doing more to protect birds.

"We ought to demand, especially in an industry that portrays itself as green, that they do it responsibly,” said Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland

Most of the birds being killed are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which covers about 1,000 bird species, including hawks and eagles. Despite the federal protection, the Department of Justice has never prosecuted a wind farm for killing a bird. There are, however, 18 open investigations.

“Government and industry have long had an agreement, if you’re cooperating with us, communicating with us working with us to reduce those impacts then we’re not going to come after you,” said Stu Webster, Director of Permitting and Environmental Affairs for Portland-based Iberdrola Renewables.  “It’s too expensive to do so, it’s not really a benefit to the wildlife. We would much rather have you voluntarily take care of business.”

Iberdrola owns several wind farms that are integrated into pre-existing wheat fields in Sherman County, Oregon. The company trains staff to look for and document birds killed by wind turbine blades. Iberdrola then shares the data with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It suggests the level of mortality of wind farms in general don’t have population-level impacts,” said Mike Green, a landbird biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland. “That’s not to say we’re not worried about it. We work with the industry to try to minimize those impacts. Even though they may not be having population impacts now, they could, for certain species.”

Wind may be more “green” than other types of energy, but the industry faces similar debates as the coal, oil and hydropower industries. All the industries face the same question: what are the acceptable environmental trade-offs?

“What we don’t want to be 10 – 15 years down the road is like the dams, another clean cheap form of energy that turns out to have huge impacts on salmon. It’s very hard to go back and retrofit facilities once they’re on the ground,” said Sallinger.

"No energy source – or really any human activity for that matter - is completely free of impacts. But, the decision America faces is how we will power our country and make choices after weighing the costs and benefits," said John Anderson, a spokesman for wind energy trade group American Wind Energy Association. "To that end it is important to consider that generating electricity from wind does not create air or water pollution, greenhouse gases, use water, require mining or drilling for fuel or generate hazardous waste that requires permanent storage."

Wind energy proponents argue that they are actually saving bird populations because wind energy does not produce as much pollution as other energy sources.

“People get really fixated in a visceral nature of what they see in their mind as far as a bird getting hit by a turbine, but the reality is no one can truly put into context the benefits of wind energy,” said Webster with Iberdrola. “That’s the part of the conversation that often gets lost on people.”

A 2011 study commissioned by Klickitat County estimates wind turbines on both sides of the Columbia River kill 15,276 birds per year.

The primary concern is for raptors, such as hawks and Golden Eagles. There are fewer of them, they are at the top of the food chain, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists say for some unknown reason they believe the birds of prey are more prone to be struck by a wind turbine blade. 

Thorough data on bird deaths is not available, because the wind industry expanded rapidly before the impacts on wildlife could be fully studied. The government also relies on the wind companies to collect the data, because it does not have the staff do its own research.

“We’re hard pressed to do the field work we need to do on our refuges, let alone go to private sites and collect the data ourselves,” said Green.

Sallinger, with the Audubon Society, wants greater regulation about where wind farms can be placed, including keeping them out of prime bird habitat. 

His organization has filed a joint federal lawsuit http://onda.org/what-we-do/energy/new-energy-subpage seeking to stop a proposed wind farm at Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon.

“There’s incredible amounts of money to be made in wind power right now and huge subsidies and we ought to demand, especially in an industry that portrays itself as green, that they do it responsibly,” said Sallinger. “Unfortunately to date, the industry has fought back on virtually every single common sense regulation that’s come down the pike.”

Last fall the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement issued a memo to provide its agents guidance on how to handle investigations when industry kills birds. 

The memo reads: “the Service has long employed an unwritten policy of encouraging industry and agriculture to employ ‘best practices’ aimed at minimizing and avoiding the unpermitted take of protected birds.”  The memo also tells agents to only refer cases for prosecution after the company has been made aware of a  situation but “fails to remediate it”.   

The U.S. Fish and Wild Service is currently working on a proposal to allow companies to apply for 30-year permits to kill a certain number of protected birds. Right now, wind companies can apply for 5 year permits, though none has ever been granted.

"The reality is you can't have zero (impact),” said Webster. “There needs to be meaningful conversation, which is a hard conversation to have, which is, what is an acceptable level of impact? And that's where the conversation is right now."

Read more: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report on bird mortatlity