Volume 29, Issue 4, Winter 2011

Wind, Bats & Giraffes

By Michael Schirmacher

BCI?Biologist Michael Schirmacher reflects on a day in the field:

As I clipped onto the 270-foot (82-meter) safety cable that runs to the top of the wind-power turbine's metal shaft, I performed a mental equipment check: " case with ultrasonic detector, check." Then the sounds of the aluminum ladder echoed throughout the structure as my steel-toed boots took their first step toward the top.

The height of a modern wind turbine is about the same as a 17-story office building – or 15 giraffes. (Those are the kinds of things you think of as you climb.) This was climb number one of a planned total of 87. I wasn't looking forward to facing July temperatures in Pennsylvania and Texas, our two study locations.

The reason for this ascent was to install bat detectors at the top of the turbine for a study of possible links between bat activity and bat fatalities at wind-energy sites. This collaboration between BCI and the U.S. Geological Survey is aimed at reducing wind energy's toll on bats.

With sweat dripping onto the turbine's metal grates, I paused to catch my breath at the first of three decks inside the structure. As I rested, I considered why I was climbing this enormous turbine. And I couldn't help thinking that I should pick up the pace: wind-related bat fatalities for 2010 are estimated in the hundreds of thousands.  A single little brown myotis can eat almost 1,000 insects in one hour. Trying to calculate the number of insects consumed by all the world's bats can make you dizzy, so I skipped the calculations and resumed my climb.

As I climbed, I thought of how far we've come since 2003, when an unprecedented number of bat fatalities were discovered at a wind-energy site. Over the years, we've worked with a number of wind-energy developers who have allowed us to conduct research at their sites and publicly disseminate our findings. But we still have work to do in convincing the wind-energy industry to adopt strategies that have been proven to reduce bat fatalities.

About 40 minutes later, I finally made it to the top. I climbed up through the yaw deck and opened the hatch to enjoy the breeze and view – only to find the reason for my climb: a dead bat was on the top of the turbine itself.

Site managers had told me about the rare occurrence of a bat being found atop the turbine, rather than on the ground, but this was the first time I had seen it myself. I documented the fatality and installed my equipment, hopeful that it might one day help reduce the deaths of these bats. I double-checked the bat detector, then checked it a third time before starting the climb back down.

I still had 86 turbines to go and I couldn't help thinking: "That's a lot of giraffes yet to climb." But, for me at least, it's worth it.

Special thanks to field technician Katrina Smith who, was instrumental in this project and climbed her fair share of turbines.

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