As it enters its 15th year, a unique collaboration has gone all-in to solve the problem of bats and wind turbines
As easily as saying his name, Jim Lindsay can recite the exact time and date that would forever change his job as a wind company biologist: 11:15 a.m. on August 19, 2003.
With NextEra Energy (and its subsidiary, Florida Power and Light), Lindsay was responsible for coordinating a series of mandatory wildlife fatality surveys at the companys new Mountaineer Wind Energy Facility on Backbone Mountain in West Virginia. When it opened in 2002, Mountaineer was the first and largest commercial wind farm east of the Mississippi; at the time, there were widespread concerns that the facilitys 44 huge rotors would kill numerous raptors and migratory songbirds.
But when one of Lindsays technicians called from Mountaineer to report, two weeks ahead of schedule, it wasnt about birds.
He said, Hey, Jim, theres a lot of dead bats up here, Lindsay recounts. And I said, whats a lot10, 15 animals? And he said to me, No, more like hundreds.
By December of the same year, Lindsay found himself in a curious confab at a barbecue joint in Austin, Texas. With him at the table were representatives from Bat Conservation International, several of Lindsays wind industry colleagues from other companies and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) senior biologist Alex Hoar. On the agenda: figuring out what to do about bats dying by the thousands at wind turbines.
We all agreed we needed to jump on this and understand what was going on, Lindsay says.
The ambitious idea that came out of the meeting was to pull together a broad coalition of partners from conservation, government and the wind industry. The partners would cooperate on a long-term mission to conduct rigorous scientific inquiry into bat fatalities at wind facilities, and work to come up with tangible, testable solutions. By early 2004, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory had signed on as founding partners along with BCIjust months after the fateful Mountaineer call.
The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative was born
Up to that point, most of the focus had been on birds, and there just wasnt much out there on bats, says Ed Arnett, a conservation biologist who worked for BCI at the time. We saw the need to have a strong science component, but with the integration of industry and other players who would need to be engaged in this if we were going to expect any real outcomes.
Currently in its 15th year, the BWEC now includes the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, along with academia, government agencies, private industry and non-governmental organizations.
The new coalition started out with a raft of challenges. First and foremost was the need for deep mutual trust despite somewhat opposing goals: on one side, an organization concerned with wildlife conservation; on the other, industry partners beholden to certain economic performances.
And then there was the matter of unanswered questions.
What does wildlife activity look like before and after wind turbine construction? Can fatalities be accurately estimated and modeled prior to construction of a windfarm? How do bats use the landscape at different times of year, such as during migration? Are wind energy facilities having population-level effects for certain bat species, and if so, what are the long-term effects? Are there technologies that can be used to keep bats away from turbines? Are there ways to operate the turbines to reduce bat fatalities? And how can all of this be done in a way that doesnt cause economic hardship on an otherwise low-impact, sustainable energy source?
Guided by an oversight committee with representatives of all the major players, the BWEC sets research priorities to answer these questions (and new ones, as they emerge) on a three-year cycle. A scientific advisory committee helps by advising and reviewing studies and development of research tools, and a technical advisory committee provides input on the practicality and possible impacts of proposed field research studies at operating wind facilities.
Early work included refining mortality monitoring protocols around wind turbines, installing radar systems and infrared night video systems to gather data on bats flying near the rotors of operating turbines. Several wind energy facilities agreed to participate in the first studies on operational curtailmentor limiting the rotation of turbine blades until wind levels reached a certain speed. During 20082009, BWEC-lead research demonstrated that by temporarily limiting turbine blade rotation during low-wind conditions, bat fatalities could be reduced by 44 to 93 percent and still allow for 99 percent of the electricity to be produced. More recent research suggest percent fatality reduction may vary by species and power loss by project.
Operational curtailment has been a huge win, says Mylea Bayless, BCIs Senior Director of Network and Partnerships, who also serves on the BWEC oversight committee. Its effective, its scientifically credible, its been tested many times in many different places, and more importantly, its made its way into policy. To take something from literally nothing, where it was just people noticing bats are being killed, to coming up with an effective solution to reduce mortalitythats a huge accomplishment.
To date, with funding from more than 45 private, public and foundation donors, group collaborators have published 14 peer-reviewed journal articles (cited over 2,000 times), six book chapters, produced 28 peer-reviewed reports, made more than 100 presentations at professional meetings, and conducted eight technical workshops for industry and research partners. And a newly published open-source program, a USGS generalized fatality estimator called GenEST, is the most recent example of a BWEC-sponsored tool thats expected to have a high degree of impact.
The great strength of the BWEC is the diversity of stakeholders, and having everyone at the same table, working toward the same goal, says Michael Schirmacher, Director of BCIs Wind Energy Program and BWEC Program Coordinator. That transparency and cooperation gives BWEC- generated products credibility among stakeholders.
Pacing for the Future
The idea of collaborative conservation and research that integrates with industry and diverse stakeholders that is the way of the future, says Arnett, who now works for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The BWEC is now a proven model for how these kinds of collaborations can work. Its difficult. But weve had successes others can learn from.
Cris Hein, formerly BCIs Wind Program Director and now at NREL, says that the ultimate goal is to develop strategies where bats and wind turbines can coexist. But for now, many questions remain.
Pressing areas of concern include the wildlife impacts of wind development in new areas offshore, for example, or in the southeastern United States. Upcoming studies will also look at the impact of newer, larger turbine technology, as well as attempt to answer the stubborn question of why some bats seem to be attracted to the turbines. Researchers will continue to refine operational minimization and seek out clues for how landscape features may affect bat movement and behavior. Lindsay says he believes the day is not far away when turbines will be available with pre-installed ultrasonic bat deterrents.
The long-term collaboration is a natural product of BCIs core mission of generating real solutions in the service of conservation, says Mike Daulton, BCIs Executive Director. As the saying goes, success begets success, and the cooperatives work continues.
Who we are and how we approach the world are exemplified by the BWECwere driven by our specialized expertise and sustained partnerships, Daulton says. And the fact that the BWEC can point to specific advancements is something to hang its hat on. It keeps people coming back to the table to keep working.