To supply more energy to more states across the country, the U.S. Department of Energy wants to see wind turbines get a lot bigger.
But many bird lovers — the American Bird Conservancy in particular — don’t like the idea, saying taller towers and bigger blades make for a deadly combination.
“This expansion, together with larger turbines and larger blades, will mean more birds will die,” said Michael Parr, chief conservation officer at the American Bird Conservancy. “Our position is, if there’s something you can do about it, you should.”
The Audubon Society also has concerns.
“Our advocacy would be to get those (turbines) tested for impacts on birds before we deploy them on a large scale,” said Garry George, the renewable energy director of Audubon California.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last month released a report calling on the nation to “unlock the vast potential for wind energy deployment in all 50 states,” highlighting technical advancements to greatly expand the areas of the country where wind turbines can be used.
The agency is calling for taller turbines with larger rotors.
The average wind turbine in the U.S. is 80 meters high, and the DOE report says plans are in development for towers 110 and 140 meters high. That’s between 360 to 459 feet — the length of 1 1/2 football fields.
The newer, taller constructions are estimated to be 1 1/2 times the height of the Statue of Liberty and could be used onshore and offshore.
Bigger turbines in more places would mean more electricity per dollar and, the department says, greater reduction in the price of wind energy.
From the U.S. Department of Energy
“By producing the next generation of larger and more efficient wind turbines, we can create thousands of new jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as we fully unlock wind power as a critical national resource,” Moniz said in a statement released by DOE May 19.
The report accompanying Moniz’s statement estimated if wind energy grows to meet 10 percent of the nation’s electricity demand by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030, it would translate into annual benefits of $9 billion in 2020 and $30 billion in 2030. The benefits are based on reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Wind accounts for 4.4 percent of U.S. electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration,
“We’ve proven out as an industry in Europe, with a fair number of turbines in Europe at 120 meters,” Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, told the Washington Post. “So it’s tested out in Europe, we think we can deploy it here in the U.S., and it’s an exciting evolution for the industry.”
But opponents say bigger blades and taller towers will kill more birds.
Parr said reports from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used radar to show that dense numbers of birds and bats migrate at night between 300 and 500 feet above the ground — putting them in direct contact with larger wind turbines.
The conservancy already estimates 573,000 birds and 880,000 bats are killed each year from hitting wind towers and blades that may appear to move slowly but can reach speeds of more than 100 mph at their tips.
“It should also be noted that these estimates do not include deaths or reproductive failure due to a loss of habitat, disturbance, or to collisions or electrocutions at the transmission towers and lines associated with wind facilities, which is likely substantial,” a conservancy report said.
Watchdog.org asked the Department of Energy to address the criticisms of bigger turbines but did not receive a response by noon Eastern time Tuesday.
In DOE’s 45-page report, “Enabling Wind Power Nationwide,” the agency said it makes every effort to avoid what’s euphemistically called “avian mortality” and pays special attention to protected species such as the bald eagle.
“Dedicated research is needed to understand the biological and ecological factors related to potential interactions between bald eagles and wind, improve the ability of regulators and developers to predict risk to bald eagles at particular sites, and assess potential mitigation measures,” the paper said.
“It’s not true to say that birds will not be affected by these large turbines or to imply the vast majority of those birds fly higher than the turbines,” Parr said in a telephone interview. “The science does not support that, and I think you have to be more careful with the large turbines than you are with the other turbines.”
George of Audubon California says his group’s members “are big supporters of renewable energy,” but he wants the Department of Energy to complete a thorough study of the impact of bigger wind turbines.
“They haven’t been tested for safety for birds, so you can’t claim that they’re safer for birds,” George told Watchdog.org. “We would like to see the Department of Energy actually do that study to show the impacts of those larger turbines.”
Defenders of wind turbines point out that more birds are killed by other sources such as windows, buildings and even cats in a given year.
Even by the American Bird Conservancy’s estimates, up to 1 billion birds are killed each year striking glass, and 175 million are killed by power lines.
Parr says ABC is concerned about those other sources of bird deaths, too.
“If it’s a major factor, we’re on top of it,” Parr said. “But when it comes to wind turbines, 500,000 (deaths a year) is not a small number.”
But the American Wind Energy Association criticized the American Bird Conservancy for what it said were suggestions that “entire areas should be banned for wind development.”
“Simply barring any development in these areas is not compatible with scaling up wind power enough to address climate change, which is the biggest threat that wildlife will face this century,” John Anderson, senior director of permitting policy and environmental affairs at AWEA, wrote on the group’s website.
“We support wind, but let’s do it in a thoughtful way,” Parr said, calling on the federal government and turbine manufacturers to be careful where they place wind farms, especially in areas home to threatened and endangered species or in the paths of migrating birds.
“(Wind) is a new and growing industry and preventing bird deaths is something we can do readily,” Parr said. “Now is the appropriate time to affect change in the industry before it’s fully built out.”
DOE envisions bigger and taller wind turbines enabling areas of the country that haven’t seen many wind farms to become contributors to the industry.
“Regions primarily affected by this increased technical potential include the Southeast, states bordering the Ohio River Valley, the Great Lakes Region, the Northeast, and portions of the Interior West and Pacific Northwest,” the DOE report said.
“Well, they may run into trouble,” George said. “It’s an experiment and it would be great if (DOE) did the experiment before they actually deployed” bigger wind turbines.
Click here to read the DOE report, “Enabling Wind Power Nationwide.”