Birds and Bats Negatively Affected by the Winds of Change in the World of Alternative Energy

Many now recognize that harvesting wind power through wind turbines provides one avenue for mitigating the effects of global warming. The Environmental Protection Agency also reports that wind is the “fastest growing energy source in the world,” making it not only a more environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuel energy but also catalyzing economic growth and creating new job opportunities in the energy industry.  Wind power can also have a negative impact on the environment, dividing environmentalists about whether to advocate for its widespread use and causing some to approach wind power projects with reservations; however, new siting techniques and turbine technology could alleviate some of these concerns.

Besides meeting opposition from those who live near the sites of proposed wind projects, turbines also raise concerns about the effects they will have on birds and other wildlife. Although originally many thought that wildlife deaths from wind turbines could be explained simply as the result of collisions, additional research reveals factors that could be exacerbating the situation, as well as other possible causes of death related to the turbines. For example, one study indicates that turbines that are white or grey in color may attract insects, which in turn draw birds and bats that eat these insects. Scientists also speculate that insects and other animals may be attracted to the heat these turbines produce. In addition, researchers have discovered that some bats with no signs of collision injuries were actually killed by the drop in pressure from air flowing through turbines’ blades, causing their lungs to explode.

Animal fatalities from wind turbines occur at alarmingly high rates. For instance, Altamont Pass Wind Farm, southeast of San Francisco, which boasts four thousand turbines, kills between seventy-five thousand and ninety-three thousand birds every year, including birds protected under federal and state statutes, such as the golden eagle and the red-tailed hawk. The United States Geological Survey also estimates that wind turbines kill thousands of bats annually.

The cumulative effects of the deaths of these birds, bats, and other species could have a harsh ecological toll. In his testimony before the congressional Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans, the National Audubon Society’s Director of Conservation Policy Mike Daulton pointed to several ways in which these wind power projects could potentially harm animals and the environment, including loss or degradation of habitat, disturbance and resulting dislocation from habitat, and disruption of particular activities for certain species, including travel for feeding, migration, and nesting purposes.

Conservation organizations and other concerned parties have begun bringing suits across the country against wind energy developers in an effort to curb the negative effects on wildlife. For instance, in Animal Welfare Institute v. Beech Ridge Energy LLC, 675 F. Supp. 2d 540 (D. Md. 2009), a coalition of nonprofit organizations filed suit against Invenergy’s Beech Ridge wind power project in West Virginia. The plaintiffs argued that the project would violate the Endangered Species Act by unlawfully “taking” endangered Indiana bats by inevitably injuring, killing, or otherwise harming them through the construction and operation of the turbines. The United States District Court of Maryland agreed, granting the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, requiring the defendants to discontinue the project until they have acquired an incidental take permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But there are methods for curbing the negative effects of wind turbines while still reaping the benefits of this green energy source. Daulton’s congressional testimony emphasized the significance of the location of wind farms, stating “Impacts to birds, bats, and other wildlife from wind projects can be largely avoided if the most important habitat areas are not developed,” taking into consideration areas that serve as migration routes or gathering places for large numbers of species of birds or bats. Daulton also advocated for mandatory federal guidelines, as these projects are mainly handled at the local and state level, leaving decisions up to agencies that often lack experience with siting wind turbines and making it difficult to assess regional impacts. Researchers are also developing solutions to this problem, such as radar technology that detects the approach of flocks of migratory birds and temporarily shuts down the turbines, as well as painting the wind turbines purple, a color that seems to attract fewer insects than the usual white turbines. Additional pre-project studies could provide other effective means for preventing our attempts to reduce the effects of global warming from actually having negative environmental ramifications.

–Caitlin Zittkowski is an editor on MJEAL


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

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