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The Impacts

As wind farms become more common throughout the country, more citizens and agency personnel have become interested in the environmental impacts of wind energy development.  These concerns can generally be placed into three categories:  collision-induced bat and bird mortality, wildlife habitat fragmentation, and aesthetic impacts.  There are also those who, for a variety of reasons, outright object to any form of wind energy development.  While it would be imprudent to dismiss any of these concerns without serious consideration, it is important to regard these issues at the appropriate scale.

green_turbineThere is no question that wind turbines kill birds and, to a lesser extent, bats.  Indeed, there are famous examples from the 1980s of old-style turbines killing thousands of birds annually.  Even with today’s new designs, turbines are still a source of bird and bat mortality throughout the country.  Although it is extremely difficult to accurately assess turbine-induced wildlife mortality, it is estimated that every turbine kills an average of between two and six birds per year.  These mortality figures vary greatly from site to site and are often species-specific.  There are localized reports of relatively high mortality rates among raptors, vultures, or waterfowl – just as some sites have reported negligible mortality.  As with any tall structure, it can be virtually guaranteed that any new or existing turbine will kill at least a few birds and bats.

Habitat fragmentation is a serious issue, and some wind farms have markedly broken up once-contiguous plant and wildlife communities.  Access roads, tower pads, transmission routes, and assorted structures may deter wildlife species that require sizable tracts of unaltered terrain.  Wind farms may be relatively common in monotypic agricultural areas, but they are just as often found in relatively natural settings atop mesas and along ridges.

Wind farms, for better or worse, also have obvious aesthetic impacts to the landscape.  Whether they are perceived as impressive structures along the skyline or eyesores to the viewshed, wind towers and turbines unmistakably add an unnatural element to the landscape, regardless of the extent that these sites may have already been altered by human activities.

Minimizing the Impacts

Any human activity is going to somehow impact the environment.  To their credit, most wind developers have taken these impacts very seriously.  By hiring qualified and knowledgeable consultants, and through cooperative efforts with agency personnel and other stakeholders, every practical method of reducing environmental impacts is investigated and an appropriate plan of action is developed.  Despite certain engineering constraints and the obvious need to place individual turbines in the most wind-efficient sites, there are many ways to effectively reduce impacts.

Pre-construction plant, wildlife, and cultural resource surveys, local bird and bat movement investigations, careful access road planning, turbine shutdowns during critical migration periods, viewshed analyses, and the like, are all commonly utilized to reduce impacts.  However, just as with any other human activity, there is absolutely no way to eliminate environmental impacts altogether.

The Most Important Part

smokestack_imageIn a worst-case scenario, and according to wind energy detractors, wind farms kill excessive numbers of birds and bats, they are ugly, and they upset the natural balance of things.  Assuming, for the sake of argument, that these claims are true, it is important to put these impacts into the proper perspective.  

Energy demands across the country, and around the world, are rapidly increasing.  Energy conservation programs and public awareness have not reduced these demands.  To meet some of these energy needs, attempts at producing fuel-efficient vehicles and buildings, as well as the development of low-impact renewable energy such as solar and wind, have to this point been ineffective.

The environmental effects of the current energy production regime have been catastrophic, and they continue to get even worse.  Holes in the ozone, global warming, contaminated and depleted surface and groundwater, toxic emissions, and accelerated rates of extinction are just a few of the horrific side affects of extractive energy production and consumption.  And by all accounts, this situation is only going to get worse if our current practices continue.

lone_turbineIn the United States, most of our electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are currently more than 1,400 active coalmines across the country.  The onsite environmental impacts of many of these mines may be regarded as severe.  Other associated impacts, such as thousands of miles of railways, transport trains and trucks spewing diesel, and mine worker and community health, must all be factored in.  In addition to the approximate 1,400 coal-fired power plants that are in operation across the country, there are currently over 150 proposed new plants. On a global scale, a new coal-fired power plant comes on line somewhere on the planet every other day.

The environmental impacts of a single wind farm pale in comparison to a single coal mine or coal-fired power plant.  Yet, proposed wind farms often receive more scrutiny than any other type of energy production facility.  Wind farms do have negative effects on the environment, no one denies that.  However, these effects must be balanced against the real-world situation.  We are at a very critical point, some experts say that it may already be too late.  Global climate change and noxious emissions must be immediately abated.  Solar energy may be a better environmental alternative, but for several reasons it has yet to be adequately developed – and we do not have the time to wait for this technology to come online and be accepted.

As unfortunate and regrettable as it is, turbines will kill birds and bats, and will forever alter the horizon.  However, they do not pollute, they do not use water, and their impacts tend to be localized.  Wind energy is currently our only hope for a safe and renewable energy source, especially considering our lust for energy is only growing stronger.



The National Wind Coordinating Collaborative (NWCC) is a consensus-based organization formed in 1994 to identify issues that affect the use of wind power, establishes dialogue among key stakeholders, and catalyzes appropriate activities to support the development of environmentally, economically, and politically sustainable commercial markets for wind power. NWCC members include representatives from electric utilities and support organizations, state legislatures, state utility commissions, consumer advocacy offices, wind equipment suppliers and developers, green power marketers, environmental organizations, agriculture and economic development organizations, research and educational institutions, and state and federal agencies. Many of the policies and protocols in common use today at wind farms are the result of NWCC efforts. For more information about the NWCC, or to check out their events or publications, go to www.nationalwind.org.

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