Should Wind Industry Get a Free Pass on Bird Deaths?
By: Guest Contributor, Paul Batistelli
Energy generation has never been without controversy, and green energy is proving to be no different. The environmental arguments against coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear power are well rehearsed. More recently, the wind power industry has been unable to silence critics of wind turbines’ impact on birds and bats. In March, the Wildlife Society Bulletin reported that about 888,000 bats and 573,000 birds are killed by wind farms annually, 80,000 of which are raptors such as hawks, falcons and eagles. This data may make us reconsider what “clean energy” means and whether this environmental harm outweighs the value of renewable energy.
Particular outrage has been caused by the deaths of bald and golden eagles. The exact number of deaths is unclear, as a paper produced by the Journal of Raptor Research in September stated that there were only about 85 eagle fatalities within the past five years, all of which occurred at 32 different wind farms in 10 states. This study has come under significant scrutiny because wind facilities voluntarily report eagle deaths, and may underestimate total deaths. Additionally, the study did not include data from the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in California, which according to NBC kills more than 60 eagles per year.
The killing of eagles is a felony, but wind energy companies have yet to face the legal prosecution that oil and electric companies have faced for similar incidents. The Obama administration has even proposed 30-year permits for wind companies to kill a set number of bald or golden eagles. Opponents of the wind power industry are outraged, and feel that because the government is subsidizing these renewable energy companies they are being given a pass for their infractions. In contrast, BP was fined $100 million for harming wildlife off the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010, PacifiCorp paid $10 million in 2009 for eagle deaths along its power lines and at its substations, and ExxonMobil paid a $600,000 fine for killing birds in Colorado.
An endless debate
Whatever resolution is reached, the wind power industry isn’t going to disappear quietly. The industry produces emissions-free, renewable energy and has more than $25 billion in investments as well as a lot of taxpayer dollars. The National Energy Modeling System predicts that over the next 20 years installed wind capacity will reach 100,000 megawatts, enough to eliminate 69 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and save consumers $17.6 billion per year in energy costs.
Relieving the wind energy industry of its ecological responsibility could create precedent for other industries to demand similar arrangements in the future. Some believe removing penalties would remove incentive to better strategize where wind farms are being built, and because there is already controversy over how wind companies count bird deaths, the proposed changes could be ineffective. Others believe that more research into environmental impact of these wind farms should be required before loans and construction sites are agreed upon.
The obvious risk with implementing harsh penalties on a new industry is stunting its growth, and possibly causing permanent damage to a growing market and job creator. Wind power has the potential to significantly reduce our carbon emissions, but both rising C02 levels and the presence of wind turbines pose a threat to birds and bats. The government must weigh the potential gains toward energy efficiency against the potential risk to protected wildlife.
The unfortunate truth is that human activity has always been detrimental to local ecosystems. All parties with a vested interest in this issue need to find a reasonable compromise that does not sacrifice rare species or hurt our chances of a reduced carbon future.
Wind turbine image via Shutterstock.
Paul Batistelli freelances in the energy field for the promotion of a greener society and energy means. He works to raise awareness on ecological issues, energy dependency, and reducing carbon footprints. He currently resides in Dallas, TX with his lab, Copeland.