Great Lakes wind energy causes concerns about risks to birds

Oct 3, 2016

It’s easy to list the benefits of renewable energy, but calculating the costs can be difficult, like the impact on birds.

The birds at the Tifft Nature Preserve, located just outside of Buffalo, are active. The preserve is about a mile from a row of wind turbines lined up along Lake Erie. Officials in say it's been generating clean energy with little impact on birds.

But as attention turns to the Great Lakes for wind power, activists and environmental officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact it could have on migratory birds.

"Anytime we put any sort of infrastructure on the landscape whether it's a tall building, whether it's a communications tower or wind turbine," said Stephen Earsom of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's something those birds didn't evolve with and they have to learn to maneuver around."

The Fish and Wildlife Service recently published a study that used radar to track bird flight around the Great Lakes. It showed heavy migration patterns near Lake Ontario, and areas near Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

How many birds actually die from wind turbines in the U.S.? No one really knows for sure. The Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have exact figures.  But it is estimated that anywhere from 20,000 to 573,000 birds are killed every year from wind turbines.

Those estimates came from data generated from national industry reports, and the American Bird Conservancy says that's a problem.

The Fish and Wildlife Service allows energy companies to gather data on bird deaths and then it’s reported to regulatory agencies. Mike Hutchins, with the conservancy, likens it to the fox watching the hen house.

“Birds and bats our native birds and bats are public trust resources. They don’t belong to the wind energy companies they belong to the American people whether their on private land or whether they’re on public land," said Hutchins. "They belong to the American people and are held in trust for this and future generations."

The conservancy is calling for increased transparency, independent environmental reviews, and public availability of bird mortality data.

Some say the claim of skewed stats is absurd.

Dave Philips is an environmental expert from Apex Clean Energy. The company plans to install 71 wind turbines near the coast of Lake Ontario. That project is one of 10 on the conservancy’s list of “the worst places for wind farms."

"It's unfortunate that the organizations that are opposing wind use that kind of information to cast doubt on what we do as an industry," said Philips.

The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges the complaints about data-gathering. And it's considering new approaches, like permitting.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to kill, harm or harass any migratory bird without a permit. However, there isn’t a permitting system in place for wind or any other industry.

Earsom said they’re in the early stages of looking into a permitting system to help make wind and other industries become bird friendly.

If a system is created, then a draft could be available by the end of the year.