Promise and Problems on the Wind

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 in use.

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 eggs. 

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 coal reserves.

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 communities.

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 arrays.

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 careful planning.

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.