When you think about wind power, what comes to mind? Electricity generated without fuel, water, air or water pollution, or planet-warming carbon dioxide? Or a threat to local wildlife? How do we address that second piece so we can focus on the first?
It’s the carbon piece that keeps me most focused on this question, given the latest climate reports (both international and domestic) and wind energy’s powerful contribution to decarbonizing the US electricity sector. It seems clear that ramping up wind power makes a lot of sense, as part of a broader, multi-technology push toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels, with all the harm they bring. It also seems clear that ramping it up means doing wind power in ways that minimize downsides.
And the wind-wildlife question seems particularly appropriate now, given the 12th Wind Wildlife Research Meeting that I recently attended. The WWRM is the latest in an every-other-year series of conferences that bring together researchers, policy makers, and others to talk about the state of the science on wind turbine interactions with birds, bats, and habitats. And this WWRM included a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the American Wind Wildlife Institute, an organization that the Union of Concerned Scientists has been involved in from the beginning, and to whose board I’ve just been elected.
I had a chance to talk about wind-wildlife history, players, issues, and solutions with AWWI’s executive director, Abby Arnold.
John Rogers (JR): Thanks for your time, Abby. Can we start with where you’ve come from, and where we’ve come from on wind-wildlife issues?
Abby Arnold (AA): Sure: As a mediator, I’ve been working with stakeholders in the wind industry and the conservation-science community for over 25 years. I got introduced to wind and wildlife in 1993, when I got contacted by the head of the American Wind Energy Association [AWEA] and electric private and public utility executives who were concerned about recent press about eagles at Altamont Pass [the nation’s first large-scale collection of wind farms, built in the 1980s, which has had bird issues but which are being addressed].
So we pulled together an initial meeting and then formed the National Wind Coordinating Committee (now Collaborative), or NWCC. UCS was a major player in the formation of NWCC, which also included representatives of public utility commissions, attorney general offices (representing consumers), the wind industry, utilities, and conservation groups. UCS was also a key part of the NWCC’s wind-wildlife working group.
It was under the NWCC that we addressed what are the right questions to ask, and how you measure the impacts.
JR: So what are the issues, as you see them?
AA: Let’s talk first about what’s positive about wind. Wind doesn’t emit carbon, doesn’t use water. It’s an economically viable source of energy.
The challenge is that impacts are local. That it causes some harm to some bird and bat species. These impacts can be direct, causing fatalities, or may be indirect by displacing species from their habitat.
Any energy resource has impacts. The questions for wind power are what species are at risk, and what solutions there are to address that risk. We’ve been spending the last twenty years studying the impacts side of the equation, with recent focus using what we have learned to develop solutions, meaning innovative strategies and technologies that are coming out of a better understanding of the impacts.
Why wind-wildlife matters
JR: This’ll be obvious to many, but: Why should people care about wind-wildlife issues?
AA: Because we want wind. I think what’s really interesting about wind power is it’s a technology that went commercial only recently, relatively speaking. Other energy sources like oil and gas, or coal, didn’t have the benefit—or responsibility—of going commercial in the twenty-first century. We have an opportunity to apply everything we now know about reducing impacts to do it right; wind has both the benefit and the burden of that knowledge. We can build it and conserve wildlife.
The other reason these issues are important is that the industry has to comply with laws, and they don’t get financing if they don’t. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The Endangered Species Act. Plus state laws, some of which are more restrictive and some of which are less. If you want to build a wind farm and not be at risk, you have to comply.
JR: Enter AWWI?
AA: The American Wind Wildlife Institute is unique. I don’t know of another energy source that has invested as much as the wind industry has in working with the science and conservation community in understanding impacts and solutions.
Twelve to thirteen years ago, as the wind industry was growing commercially, they recognized that they needed to address these issues more quickly in order to build out their potential. Dr. James Walker, at the time the chair of the AWEA board and the CEO of enXco [a wind company, now EDF Renewables], worked with a number of other leaders to encourage the wind industry to create a new non-profit to work with the conservation-science community to understand the risks and develop solutions to address those risks. UCS was the first non-profit organization that agreed to sign on, followed by several others.
That led to the creation of AWWI, an independent nonprofit (unlike the NWCC, which is funded by the US Department of Energy [DOE])—so AWWI could do the independent science and deliver results.
Now, ten years later, we are reaping the benefits of all that leadership. This year we have [as members] twenty-seven companies, nine national conservation-science groups, and AFWA [the association of state fish and wildlife agencies]. And next year we’ll have even more.
Technology for wind and wildlife
JR: You’ve mentioned solutions…?
AA: If you think about what the state of the science was ten years ago, we were making all kinds of assumptions about why there were habitat impacts, or why they were occurring. The “solution” at the time was avoidance: Don’t build.
But we need clean electricity, and wind power has been one of the best options for supplying that. So not building wasn’t a viable option.
Now, we have over 90 gigawatts [90,000 megawatts] of wind power built in the US—and we have a much better understanding of why these “takes” [bird or bat deaths] are occurring. Environmental factors, habitat, time of day, activity in the area. We just have a much more refined understanding.
So now we’re developing machine-based technologies to detect and deter species [see also here for bats and here for eagles]; we’re in a whole new ballgame for understanding the science, the risks, and also the solutions to address. There are these camera- or radar-based ones that may be better than the human eye at seeing what’s flying around. And once a device figures out what it is, there are technologies in development that may deter the bird or bat from being near the turbine—with certain kinds of lights, for example, or sounds. Those are things that they’re developing. AWWI has a catalog of technologies available to AWWI Partners and Friends.
What we haven’t figured out is the economics. They’re new, they’re expensive. So at the same time as we’re having this exciting time to create/develop these solutions, the industry is faced with increasing pressure to reduce costs, to compete with natural gas. Wind companies have to be very strategic about what technologies to invest in, and integrating them into projects so they remain cost competitive.
JR: What’s AWWI’s role been in moving those technologies along?
AA: AWWI provided the catalyst for engineers, biologists, and operations experts to collaborate, creating a new field. AWWI’s technology innovation program, developed in the last five years, is tracking, developing, and providing independent peer-reviewed assessment of technologies. Evaluating commercial-ready technologies with independent results helps regulators and wind companies make informed decisions about what to invest in. DOE supports this development through funding and their labs, like NREL [the National Renewable Energy Laboratory], which supports early-stage development of these types of technologies. Through collaborative science we bring together all the different stakeholders that need to coordinate on actually integrating these technologies into wind farms.
Better wind-wildlife science through data
JR: How about the data side, in terms of understanding what we know about siting and building wind farms in ways that avoid and minimize impacts?
AA: That’s another really important piece of AWWI’s work: the American Wind Wildlife Information Center. The AWWIC is the most comprehensive database of post-construction fatality data [data on bird and bat fatalities after a wind farm has been built] for the United States. And the reason is that it includes both publicly available and confidential data. We have confidential data because companies have agreed to work with AWWI to provide data that has been anonymized so it can be included in analyses but remain confidential. The database currently includes data for a quarter of wind power capacity installed as of 2016.
JR: So that’s a bit about the issues, the technologies, the data. More generally, how do things look now from where you’re standing?
AA: In this anniversary year, we’re seeing a recommitment from the wind industry to develop these solutions. I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been that in six or so years we’ll look back and say that this was a pivotal year. The demand for clean electricity. The development of AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning. The sophistication of the industry in recognizing and wanting to deal with issues. The only thing holding us back is the uncertainty in the policy environment at the federal level. But we’ve got market purchasers buying wind—Google, Microsoft,… We’ve got utilities, like AEP. We’ve got states on board.
And, through AWWI, we’ve got the wind industry working hand-in-hand with conservation-science groups to make sure we reduce negative effects and enhance the positive ones as we work to get the wind power we need—both for people and for wildlife.
JR: And UCS is glad to be a part of it. Thanks, Abby, for your time, and for your leadership on all this.
More wind-wildlife materials from AWWI:
- Wind Turbine Interactions with Wildlife and Their Habitats: A Summary of Research Results and Priority Questions
- Bats and Wind Energy: Impacts, Mitigation, and Tradeoffs
- Wind-Wildlife Documents Library
- AWWI Results Catalog
More about Abby:
Abby Arnold manages collaboratives that elevate the best available science into decision-making to achieve results. Along with being executive director for AWWI since 2010 and interim director during its founding, Abby serves as principal/senior mediator at Kearns & West, and has been lead facilitator and strategic advisor for the NWCC, the Department of the Interior’s Wind Turbine Guidelines Federal Advisory Committee, and many other regional and national collaborations. Abby holds a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a B.A. in Environmental Planning and Politics from UC Santa Cruz.