Wind Turbines Not a Threat to U.S. Bird Population, Says Study

Proponents of wind energy in the U.S. have long argued that the overall impact of properly sited wind turbines on birds is extremely low compared with other human-related activities and structures. Now a congressionally mandated study released by the National Research Council (NRC) on Thursday offers new findings to support this argument — and is recommending that implementing national-level policies to enhance the benefits of wind energy and minimize its harms would help guide state and local regulatory efforts.

Focusing its study on a mountainous region that included parts of West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the report cited that bird deaths caused by collisions with wind turbines are a minute fraction of total anthropogenic bird deaths — less than 0.003% [three of every 100,000] in 2003. “The report verifies the fact that wind energy development’s overall impact on birds is extremely low compared with many other human-related activities. More than a thousand times as many birds are killed flying into buildings, for example, than wind turbines,” said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. While the study found that wind facilities can have certain adverse environmental effects on a local or regional level, the report committee saw no evidence that fatalities from existing wind facilities are causing measurable changes in bird populations in the U.S. A possible exception to this is deaths among birds of prey, such as eagles and hawks, near Altamont Pass, California — a facility with older, smaller turbines that appear more apt to kill such birds than newer models of wind turbines. “The report rightly concludes that our challenge is to design and locate wind-power projects to minimize the negative impacts on birds. It is essential that industry-wide environmental safeguards be developed so that each wind project can be considered on its own merits with appropriate studies before and after construction,” said Betsy Loyless, senior vice president of the National Audubon Society. The report recommends studies be conducted to evaluate possible ecological impacts prior to choosing sites for wind facilities, and follow-up studies should be conducted to measure actual effects. Additional basic research also is needed to help assess the short- and long-term impacts of these facilities on other species at risk such as bats. But while some states have developed guidelines, wind energy is such a recent addition to the energy mix in most areas — the nation’s wind-energy capacity more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2006 — that most states are relatively inexperienced at planning and regulation. To help inform the development of guidelines, the report offers an analysis of the environmental benefits and drawbacks of wind energy, along with an evaluation guide to aid decision-making about projects. The report does not examine the impact of offshore wind-energy projects. The Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy Projects report was sponsored by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.
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