The U.S. Congress aimed a spotlight on the growing problem of bat and bird fatalities at wind-energy plants with a May 1 hearing that brought testimony from top experts, including Bat Conservation International biologist Ed Arnett. He directs the BCI-led Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, known as BWEC.
National Public Radio’s Living on Earth program noted that the House subcommittee hearing was titled: “Gone with the Wind.” NPR reporter Jeff Young suggested that “the title alone hinted at growing skepticism in Congress” with voluntary industry efforts to deal with the problem.
BCI, working with BWEC – an alliance of industry, government agencies, universities and conservation groups that was formed in 2004 – has clearly documented that many thousands of bats are being killed at wind-energy farms around the country. Collaborating scientists are working to find ways prevent those deaths.
Young cited the experience at the Mountaineer wind-energy site in West Virginia in 2003. This was, he said, “the first project to reap the winds of West Virginia’ s high ridges. And the local community was split. Some eagerly embraced a new source of energy and revenue. Others worried that migrating birds and mountain scenery would be lost. So the company scaled back the project and pledged to watch for birds. But just a few years into operation another problem popped up that no one saw coming: bats were being killed by the hundreds.”
“They found over 400 bodies and estimated between 1,400 and 4,000 bats had been killed at that site,” Arnett told the radio audience. “That was orders of magnitude higher than any other facility had ever reported.”
Arnett, as part of his leadership of the BWEC project, trained dogs to sniff out bat carcasses and tracked bats at night with thermal imaging. Young said Arnett suspects bats that roost in trees are attracted to the windmills, perhaps during mating or migrating seasons. They are killed in collisions with the giant, spinning blades of the wind turbines.
After the Mountaineer discoveries, scientists began surveying other wind projects on forested ridges and found those were also killing many bats. “The Mid Atlantic mountain ridges have some of the best wind in the region,” Young said, “and developers propose about a dozen wind farms there. That has Arnett worried.”
“When you think about the entire North American continent … and think about number of turbines and the fatality rates, the cumulative impacts add up very quickly and become very alarming,” Arnett said.
And Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy testified at the congressional hearing that the wind industry has been reluctant to follow recommendations on where to place and how to operate windmills. “This is the only energy sector that is unregulated,” he told NPR. “We would like green energy. But you really have to enforce some laws, you have to put teeth in something, or they’ re not going to comply.”
A recent National Academy of Sciences report concluded that wind could produce seven percent of America’s electricity by 2020, which would offset about five percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. But the Academy also warns that some bird and bat populations could be threatened as wind power expands.
Young said the report urges government agencies to take environmental impacts more seriously when planning wind projects. But, he added, that planning depends on adequate data, and the Academy found that lacking.
Arnett said, “Decisions will have to be made on the compromise, quite frankly: What are we willing to give for this renewable energy source? How much habitat loss is acceptable, how many fatalities are acceptable? We just simply do not have enough information. We’re not there yet.”
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