NJAS Opinion: August, 2003
by Matt Dufort, Conservation Associate, and Eric Stiles, Vice
President, Conservation and Stewardship
For many years, we have relied on a few types of energy
production to meet our power needs. These traditional energy
sources are having disturbing, large-scale impacts on wildlife
and their habitats. For this reason, New Jersey Audubon Society
supports the development of environmentally responsible
renewable energy, including wind power, to replace our current
polluting power plants. However, it is critical that these new
technologies are developed with wildlife in mind. Trading one
danger for another is not a solution. We must ensure that new
methods of energy production are carefully designed to minimize
harm to wildlife and the environment.
Conserving energy is another important way to curb the
problems created by traditional energy sources. Easy ways to do
this include replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescents,
using energy-efficient appliances, ensuring that buildings are
well insulated, and turning off lights and appliances when not
The Cost of Traditional Energy
Much of our current energy supply is generated by power
plants driven by fossil fuels or nuclear material. Operation of
these plants contributes to global warming, habitat degradation
and destruction, smog and other air pollution, contamination of
our waterways, and radioactive waste.
Acid rain produced by combustion of fossil fuels is a serious
issue for forest birds. It causes forest dieback, reducing the
habitat available for forest birds. Acid rain changes forest
invertebrate communities, affecting the food needed by many
species. It also leaches calcium from the upper soil
layers-calcium which birds desperately need to produce their
Mining of fuel for power plants is another serious problem.
It can lead to destruction of large areas of habitat and
contamination of waterways with chemicals or soil runoff. Whole
mountain tops in West Virginia are even being leveled to access
Nuclear power has its own challenges. There are clear,
widely known problems associated with mining nuclear fuel and
disposing of nuclear waste. The cooling systems in nuclear
plants also affect wildlife. The intake and heating of water in
these systems may kill fish and disturb local aquatic
Shifting from polluting energy sources to clean,
environmentally responsible sources is a vital part of
preserving our natural heritage.
Renewable Energy on the Rise
Technological advances and increased demand for cleaner
energy are pushing renewable energy to the forefront. Solving
the problems of traditional energy will require using a blend of
sources such as photovoltaic cells, hydrofuel cells, wind power,
geothermal energy, and newly emerging technologies. Governor
McGreevey has made an admirable commitment to promoting
renewable energy in New Jersey, setting a goal for the state to
obtain 20% of its total energy consumption from renewable
sources by the year 2020.
One renewable energy source that is gaining momentum is wind
power. More than twenty states now have operational wind power
facilities, with over 15,000 turbines online nationwide. Wind
power is renewable and non-polluting, and can be combined with
other land uses such as agriculture.
Most existing wind energy facilities are west of the
Mississippi River. Until recently, it was thought that there
simply was not enough wind in eastern states to support viable
wind power. Newer turbines, however, can generate energy at
much lower wind speeds. The rush is now on to establish
facilities in eastern states. Several proposed New Jersey wind
power facilities are currently at various stages of planning.
Problems on the Horizon
Wind energy is not a panacea. Misplaced wind power
facilities have the potential to create major troubles for
wildlife. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, "Wind
energy facilities can adversely impact wildlife, especially
birds and bats, and their habitats. As more facilities with
larger turbines are built, the cumulative effects of this
rapidly growing industry may initiate or contribute to the
decline of some wildlife populations."
Abundant research has shown that wind turbines kill birds and
bats. Flying birds can hit the turbine structure or blades.
Large birds such as raptors may be struck and killed by the
moving blades. Population level effects on bats have not been
well studied, and definitely require more research.
Fortunately, studies conducted to date seem to indicate that
few birds are currently being killed at wind power facilities
west of the Mississippi. However, little research has been done
in the eastern U.S., and it is not safe to extend past results
to New Jersey. Sites in other areas do not have the
concentrations of nocturnal migratory birds that we have on the
Atlantic Flyway. These migrants are at particular risk of being
killed by wind turbines. Sites within major bird and bat
migration corridors may not be suitable for large wind turbine
Because of topography, wind conditions, and development, the
prime sites in New Jersey for wind facilities are in coastal
areas and along high ridges. These are also the highways for
much of the migration along the Atlantic Flyway. Millions of
songbirds, raptors, shorebirds, waterfowl, and wading birds pass
through New Jersey each spring and fall. Construction of wind
turbines in these areas would put them directly in the path of
New Jersey's spectacular bird migration.
In addition to causing direct mortality, wind turbines can
also disturb wildlife and discourage them from using an area.
Wildlife may avoid or abandon areas once wind turbines are
installed; this has been shown in waterbirds and grassland
birds. This risk probably varies by species, but could be quite
serious in areas with high wildlife concentrations or
populations of threatened and endangered species.
Conclusion: Caution and Research
These complex issues dictate that wind power should be
developed with caution. A system must be devised to regulate
and oversee planning, construction, and operation of
facilities. With sufficient knowledge and care, wind power may
lighten the load on our power plants and our wildlife.
Differences in behavior and distribution of wildlife from
site to site can make an enormous difference in how those
wildlife would be affected. Wind power's potential impacts on
local and regional wildlife populations must be addressed on a
case-by-case basis. Caution is particularly important in areas
used by vulnerable populations of rare, threatened, and
endangered species. Other danger zones include sites along
major migration corridors and on the regular flight paths of
colonial birds or large roosts. Wind power facilities may need
to be located outside these areas to lessen effects on wildlife.
In order to understand, predict, and minimize wind power's
impacts on birds and other wildlife, research must be conducted
before, during, and after construction of any new facility.
Site placement requires attention to local movements of
residents and migrants around the proposed location. Numbers,
species, and flight patterns are all important in determining
likely problems. These studies must be run year-round to
address breeding and wintering species and spring and fall
migrants. A given site may pose little threat to wintering
birds while being a huge risk for fall migrants, or vice versa.
If a proposed wind power facility is likely to imperil birds
or other wildlife, the project should be redesigned or moved.
Regulations on wind power facilities must also include measures
for mitigating wildlife impacts discovered after construction.
Possible mitigation tactics include seasonal shutdowns and
changes in turbine or facility design.
Emerging sources of renewable energy hold great promise.
However, we need to recognize that renewable energy may not
always be environmentally responsible energy. Many of our
traditional power sources were developed without due attention
to their environmental impacts. With wind power, we have a
chance to show that we have learned from our past mistakes.
That means a cautious approach, with a focus on research and
Creation of new wind power facilities should be linked to
decommissioning or retirement of high-polluting traditional
energy plants. Wind power could greatly relieve our dependence
on traditional energy sources. Unfortunately, it could also
cause serious problems for birds and other wildlife. Great care
in the planning, design, and placement of wind energy facilities
will make all the difference.