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Reconciling the Local Wildlife Risks of Wind Energy with its Global Climate Benefits

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If you care deeply about the natural world, how should you view the growing number of wind turbines across the American landscape?

The wind farm at Peetz has 33 wind turbines -- the first of their kind for a commercial operation in the U.S. NEG Micon manufactures the turbines and each can generate up to 900 kilowatts. Each unit consists of a 170-foot diameter rotor and a turbine, set on a 237-foot high tower. The total weight of each unit, including rotors, turbine and tower, is 164 tons.

Peetz Table Wind Farm, Photo By Marguerite Kelly, NREL 14112.

Two colleagues and I have published a new paper in the journal Climatic Change that seeks to reconcile concerns over risks to local wildlife with wind energy’s benefits in reducing the existential risks that climate change poses for much of the world’s biological diversity.

I sit proudly on the board of the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI), an innovative non-profit dedicated to the “timely and responsible development of wind energy while protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat”. In 2008, The Union of Concerned Scientists cofounded AWWI in partnership with a who’s who list of the nation’s leading conservation organizations and wind energy companies.

Our reason for joining this partnership was simple: climate change is a deal-breaker for the conservation of global biodiversity. Limiting its pace and the severity of impacts to species and ecosystems will require a swift transition away from fossil fuels, including through the accelerated build-out of wind and other low-carbon sources of renewable energy.

In the U.S., keeping carbon emissions to levels consistent with limiting warming to the 2 degrees C policy target requires an expansion of power produced by land-based wind turbines from about 61 gigawatts (GW, or 1000 megawatts) today to an estimated 330-440 GW by 2050. Even under very optimistic assumptions about the potential role of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies – each with their own significant risks and costs – as well as the accelerated deployment of other renewables and energy efficiency measures, we are going to need a lot more wind to meet demands for low-carbon electricity.

What does this have to do with wildlife conservation?

Beyond its climate benefits, generating electricity from wind uses virtually no water, a major conservation benefit in parts of the country projected to become increasingly water-stressed. But concerns over the impacts of wind turbines on the sensitive wildlife populations and habitats could greatly limit the pace and scale of its expansion. Concerns are especially high over risks to raptors and bats that can collide with turbine blades, as well as to sage grouse and prairie chickens whose grassland habitats have some of the best wind resources in the country.

Amid a noisy debate where too often the direct wildlife risks of wind siting and operation are either downplayed or hyped, AWWI works to soberly document what’s known, develop tools and technologies to reduce impacts, and build toward a shared vision among conservationists, wind energy advocates, and policymakers for timely, responsible siting and operations.

What should such a shared vision include?

In our Climatic Change paper, Thinking Globally and Siting Locally: Renewable Energy and Biodiversity in a Rapidly Warming World,” Taber Allison (AWWI’s director of research and evaluation), Terry Root (climate and conservation scientist at Stanford University, and fellow AWWI board member), and I point out that further research and collaboration between industry and conservation partners holds great promise to improve siting and operations to protect wildlife.

And we note that wildlife risks and uncertainties won’t be eliminated — certainly not in advance of the pace and scale of wind development needed to limit climate change.

Specifically, we argue that:

“The predicted and devastating impacts of climate change on biodiversity need to be incorporated into the risk calculus of renewable energy development in ways that they are not today. Even as the conservation community partners with the wind industry to minimize impacts of siting renewable energy, it will be necessary to accept some, and perhaps substantial uncertainty about the [local, direct] risk to wildlife populations if we are to limit the greater risks of global extinctions from unlimited climate change.” 

Incorporating the climate and conservation benefits of renewable energy development into siting decisions won’t be easy, of course, as local and immediate concerns can often trump larger goals. The estimates above suggest we will need to expand wind energy in the US by something like 10 GW per year on average through 2050 if we’re to sufficiently limit our contribution to global warming.

Doing so will require the best available science and innovative technologies to limit wildlife risks together with a willingness to make tough choices in the face of uncertainty about those risks to protect species and ecosystems for the long haul. And it will, we propose, require continued constructive dialogue among industry, wildlife conservation and clean energy advocates and policymakers to drive good choices forward.

Please join in the conversation.

Posted in: Global Warming

About the author: Peter Frumhoff is a global change ecologist and serves as chief scientist for the UCS climate campaign. Dr. Frumhoff is an internationally-recognized expert on climate change impacts, climate science and policy, tropical forest conservation and management, and biological diversity. He holds a Ph.D. in Ecology. See Peter's full bio.

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  • Hap Klein

    I like the thoughtful reconciliation of the many moving parts of all this.
    Especially recognizing a constant Nimby reaction from surprising quarters like the Kennedy’s and Koch’s in Cape Cod.
    Two elements I have tried to emphasize is either wind or solar and thermal depend on location of the resource and the market.
    We will never be able to move electricity thousands of miles so it’s makes sense to generate solar from sunny areas, wind from windy areas and avoid trying thermal through granite.
    Adoptability is the key to anything new and keeping options open with flexible imagination to strip unforeseen challenges.

  • Don

    Great sensible read. As long as property owners and municipalities maintain the “not in my backyard” mentality the bogus “ugly props” and not so bogus “ugly transmission lines” will win the day. I am dismayed by the previous and numerous wind supporter who have backed off when a wind farm was proposed with in sight of their summer residence (i.e. Kennedy). If the affluent left does not buy in … then the road will be uphill. You will probably obtain more support from organizations like the NRA or Ducks Unlimited then the “beautiful people” who sit on both sides of the political aisle.

  • Charles

    440 GW as a % share of energy mix similar to the capacity factor of wind, not completely far fetched but unlikely due to the low capacity value of wind. The economic case for scaling such a variable source up isn’t good if we can get more predictable PV cheaper and modular nuclear supported.

  • Vane Lashua

    this article discounts all but wind. Big ugly props replacing big ugly smokestacks. Spend a little money on some research and all our 1000GW could come 24/7 from right beneath our feet anywhere –geothermal. Deep. Shallow. Out of sight, out of nature’s way and out of our sight.

    • Charles

      Heat energy from enhanced geothermal is nuclear fission, probably easier to safely contain our own fission reactions in smaller underground reactors then to drill to geothermal vents all across the US.

      • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/peter-frumhoff.html Peter Frumhoff

        I completely agree that increased solar and geothermal both have important roles to play in our future energy mix, along with the scale-up of on-shore wind discussed in this post. See here and here for our assessment of their potential. As for small module reactors, it’s difficult to see how they overcome the economic, security and safety hurdles faced by nuclear power. See this recent UCS report.

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