Wind Power Buildout Could Kill Millions of Birds, Conservation Group Says

We need more data, the American Bird Conservancy said, adding that environmental oversight or assessment can help developers be certain that significant numbers of birds will not be harmed.

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) said that the buildout of wind energy proposed by the federal government to meet a Department of Energy target of generating 20 percent of the nation’s electricity through wind power is expected to kill at least one million birds per year by 2030, and probably significantly more.

ABC considers the one million estimate (which is based on a 2005 paper, "A Summary and Comparison of Bird Mortality from Anthropogenic Causes with an Emphasis on Collisions" by Wallace Erickson et al) to be a significant underestimate of bird mortality. A more recent 2009 estimate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), for example, indicated that approximately 440,000 birds were already being killed per year, ABC said. At the time, 22,000 turbines were in operation representing 25GW of installed capacity, a fraction of the 300GW of production capacity needed to meet the 2030 target. Wind farms are also expected to impact almost 20,000 square miles of terrestrial habitat, and more than 4,000 square miles of marine habitat by 2030, some of this critical to threatened species.

“The real answer is that we simply don’t yet have enough data to reliably estimate cumulative impacts, but once acquired they will likely far exceed current estimates. The growing and disproportionate 'take' of species of conservation concern also appears to be an issue relative to the overall number of birds killed, and that is another cause for worry,” said Albert Manville, Ph.D., of the FWS’s Division of Migratory Bird Management.

“We are plunging head-long into wind power, but so far, very few studies have been conducted that show what scale of impact it will really have on birds,” said Mike Parr, ABC’s vice president. “While American Bird Conservancy supports bird-smart wind power, we do not support the fast-tracking of wind projects without adequate environmental oversight or assessment that can help developers and the public be certain that significant numbers of birds will not be harmed.”

In the near future, the Department of the Interior is expected to issue industry guidelines on the siting and operation of wind power to reduce bird and other wildlife impacts. Whether these guidelines will be binding or not is a cause of major concern to conservationists. “We wouldn’t allow stop signs to be voluntary, so why would preventing the killing of birds, which violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, be voluntary?” said ABC’s Vice President of Conservation Advocacy, Darin Schroeder.

Another major concern about wind development is that certain sensitive species may be affected very significantly by wind build-out. These include the Golden Eagle, the Greater Sage-Grouse, and endangered species such as the Whooping Crane. These species can be impacted by transmission lines and the infrastructure associated with wind farms or by the turbines themselves.

ABC has requested a congressional hearing into the bird impacts of wind power.