Debate continues to rage over wind power’s effect on birds

Cleveland — Wind power is  one of the fastest developing energy sources in the United States. But how much of a threat is it to birds and bats?

The Icebreaker is an offshore wind energy project, proposed by LEEDCo in the Central Lake Erie Basin. This pilot project will consist of six wind turbines located seven miles northwest of Cleveland and more than three miles from shore. 

The goal is to have Icebreaker operational by the end of 2017. But there are strong concerns about the harm to birds and bats; Kirtland’s warblers pass through the Lake Erie region during migration. There are maybe 3,000 of them left in the world, said Michael Hutchins, national coordinator of the American Bird Conservancy’s  Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign. If only 10 to 20 are killed by wind turbines, that is a major loss. Many birds have even smaller populations than that, he said.

The ABC and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory support wind power when it is bird-smart, and believe that birds and wind power can co-exist if the wind industry is held to mandatory standards that protect birds. 

“Before anyone can say if wind power is a possibility in an area of such heavy bird activity, there would need to be a preconstruction study that was scientifically sound and answered the question of what birds and how many are using the CLEB in all seasons,” said Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of BSBO.

LEEDCo, the Sierra Club Ohio, the Ohio Environmental Council, and others say the Icebreaker project presents a low risk to birds and bats in the CLEB, and that maintaining the status quo regarding Ohio’s energy system is unacceptable. Pollution from coal-fired plants kills 4,000 people in Ohio a year, said Eric Ritter, LEEDCo’s communications and strategy manager. The electric power sector in the United States is the major contributor to global climate change. That represents the biggest threat to bird species in the world.

“Ohio right now has about 32 coal plants and all together they have about 24 gigawatts of electric generating capacity,” Ritter said. “If you were to develop all of the areas that Ohio DNR identified as favorable or very favorable in Lake Erie, that would be almost 20 gigawatts. Our goal is a tiny fraction of that.”

“The Icebreaker project is a pilot project of what is planned to be a massive buildout in Lake Erie,” Kaufman said. “The longterm goal is about 1,700 wind turbines in the CLEB. BSBO has voiced objections to the project. Our concerns are, looking at the impacts to birds and looking at their preconstruction environmental assessment, we felt the science was very weak.

“You don’t have to be a Ph.D. ornithologist to look at the environmental assessment and see that there are serious insufficiencies,” she said. “Both in terms of the way that they assessed the number of birds using that portion of the lake, and their understanding of bird behavior and ecology was lacking. In assessing the bird movement in that area, one of the ways that they looked at the volume of nocturnal migrations was to take people out on a boat at night using night vision binoculars to watch for birds. That is not a sufficient way to evaluate night migration.”
 

LEEDCo has performed several risk assessments, Ritter said. The nonprofit company started working with regulatory agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DNR Division of Wildlife in 2008 to learn what preconstruction studies it needed to do. They agreed that a small-scale pilot project that was heavily instrumented would inherently reduce any risks. LEEDCo is committed to equipping the project with the most state-of-the-art bird and bat monitoring equipment, Ritter said.

“We’re collaborating with stakeholders and subject matter experts from all around the world to design a really robust research agenda that answers some of the unknown questions and then to use that to inform how birds use the far offshore waters of Lake Erie and then use all of that to inform responsible development for future projects,” Ritter explained. “We have thoroughly surveyed all of the peer review literature about avian impacts for offshore wind projects in Europe, and about avian impacts of onshore projects in North America.”

ABC is trying to keep an open mind, Hutchins said. But it didn’t think that LEEDCo’s cursory environmental assessment proves that there are no endangered species in the area.
LEEDCo used radar studies to conclude that no endangered species would be affected by the project.

“I said, ‘can you tell a Canada warbler from a Kirtland’s warbler via radar?’” Hutchins said. “They said, ‘no, but we had people out there with binoculars during the day looking as well.’ These are nighttime migrants and a lot of times they’re flying at a couple of thousand feet. It depends on the weather conditions as to what height they fly and what routes they fly. During high wind or inclement weather they could be flying a very different route at different altitudes.”

On the other hand, Trish Demeter, the OEC managing director, energy and clean air, said OEC can see where the concerns are coming from and that they are legitimate. But OEC is confident that LEEDCo is doing its due diligence to be as protective as it can be of migratory birds and bats.

“We’re confident that they’ve done their homework and invested a lot to ensure that the siting of these turbines will have very little if any impact on the very important bird habitats that are in the Lake Erie region,” Demeter said. “There is always a risk when you’re building something that goes up into the air where birds and bats live; the developers of the project know that. They’re investing a lot more than is required of them in terms of seeing or understanding what those risks are for birds and bats in the area.”

The situation is a win-win for the environment and economic development in the region, Demeter said. She echoed Ritter’s comments that climate change and coal-fired power plants are what is hurting wildlife.

BSBO’s and ABC’s response, contained in a review of a LEEDCo white paper, said, “We understand the desire to move toward renewable energy in Ohio, and to replace the aging energy infrastructure based on non-renewable, polluting fossil fuels. We also understand that this will involve some tradeoffs, and that some birds may be killed at any wind energy development. That being said, as bird conservation organizations, we do not agree that our nation’s ecologically important birds (and bats) should be considered ‘collateral damage’ in our fight against anthropogenic climate change.”

The Sierra Club of Ohio disagreed and echoed the comments that climate disruption is the worst threat to birds and must be “hit head on,” said Jen Miller, director of the group. Today’s wind turbines use new technologies and there are new operational changes that can protect wildlife, such as shutting down turbines during migration. 

“We use sonar to find out whether they’re butterflies, birds, whatever, we find out where they are migrating and we make sure to shut down the turbine,” Miller said.

“Even changing the color of blades can help,” Miller said. “We found that gray, white, or silver tend to attract insects, which are then going to attract birds and bats. If you paint them purple, the insects are less likely to be attracted to the blades. It doesn’t really look different from the ground because they are so high up but just changing the color of the paint reduces the insect population near them, which therefore reduces the amount of birds that come by.”

LEEDCo is aware of these new technologies and operational changes. While it has not yet designed a system for postconstruction monitoring, it is committed to pushing the state of the art involving as many subject matter experts and stakeholders in the design as possible. 

“We’ll be able to collect data at this site that is totally unimpeachable and be able to advance the state of the science with regard to wildlife interactions,” Ritter said.

However, the technology to record bat and bird deaths from wind energy facilities offshore is not well developed yet. 

“We’re afraid that if they’re allowed to build it that we’ll never know what they’re killing and how many,” Hutchins said. 

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