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Tradeoff: Wind Power vs. Avian Well-being

Over the weekend, another article cautioning on the evils of wind power, bird kills, made it into wide circulation. This is not a new issue and it’s not an issue easily solved as it pits two natural groups of allies against one another over a single issue. Generally speaking, people promoting the growth and use of renewable electricity generation are doing so not only out of the desire for profit but also to lessen the impact of electricity generation on the environment as a whole. And generally speaking, people working to protect the bird populations are doing so out of a sense that it is our responsibility to protect the environment and particularly those residents of the environment who don’t have a voice in the process, like plants and animals.

The key to recognize is that both groups have the same goal in common, these groups are not natural enemies. But, through the years wind operators and bird conservation groups seem to have lost sight of their basic shared mission.

Let’s be honest with ourselves over this particular tradeoff (avian death vs. wind turbines.) First, we need to acknowledge that the hunger for electric power is not going to slacken, it increases each year. Over the past 14 years according to Electric Power Monthly data, demand has increased over 30%. The demand for electric power has grown faster than renewable electricity generation can be installed and operated, so over that same period, while the gross amount of renewable power is much larger, the relative percentage share of renewable power is about the same and in some areas a little less. What does the heavy lifting for the grid? In order, coal (~50%), nuclear (~20%), natural gas (~17%), hydroelectric (~6%), and everything else (~7%.)

Since coal is the largest portion of the generation portfolio, let’s look at the impact of generating a megawatt hour. Emissions of around 1,000kg of carbon dioxide and around 15kg of sulphlur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and other trace contaminents like mercury. A megawatt of wind power by contrast is zero emission (yes, there were emissions accrued during manufacturing, transport, and construction but there no different than the coal plant had – so let’s not cloud the issue with that extraneous information.)

So in the end, we’re talking about trading off the negative environmental impacts of non-renewable generation vs. the health and well being of birds. The negative environmental impacts of non-renewable power generation affects all species on the planet. The turbines affect birds, not all birds, some birds. Not wholesale killing, an occasional bird death. When viewed through this lens, the answer should be obvious. Build as much renewable generation as we can because that will help the overall ecosystem and benefit all species, including birds. However, we should take measures to minimize the avian impact where possible. Ultimately, there needs to be a partnership between the avian conservation groups and the wind operators where cooperation is routine to serve a joint goal: minimize avian impact while promoting and growing renewable energy. No one relishes the thought of a Golden Eagle death at the hands of a wind turbine.

One item that has always been a curiosity for me on this issue is the singling out of wind turbines. Cellular telephone network towers, radio towers, buildings, and cars all kill these birds in large numbers too. I don’t see any campaigns to attack these structures; it only seems to be wind turbines that attract attention. It’s clear, cooperation, not conflict between the groups is necessary. Who knows, perhaps what is learned in minimizing avian impact for turbines could be used on other structures?

A final word on this, minimizing avian impact does not mean zero avian impact. The societal and environmental benefit of renewable power is worth making tradeoffs and clearly, this is one of them.

1 Comment so far

  1. gavelect October 23rd, 2008 8:39 am

    Hi nice post, You might be interested to hear of the The innovative (and controversial) UK wave hub being built on the Firth has been giving the go ahead – Energy that gets produced underwater and that can’t be seen to the naked eye must be hailed as a great achievement.As long is it does not have a negative impact in the local marine life the more of green and clean energy we can put into the Scottish Power grid is fantastic.