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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Could Wind Power Become the Fourth Largest Source of Unnatural Avian Mortality by 2050?

Photo by Thomas Kohler Via Flickr Creative Commons

The largest single cause of bird mortality from Mark Jacobson's 100% renewable energy plan comes from the increase in the number of high voltage power lines to connect wind and solar to load centers.

Figure 1: Annual Bird Mortality According to Sovacool Study
Many of you have seen the chart in Figure 1 from the study by Benjamin Sovacool which launched the internet urban legend that nuclear kills more birds than wind. After correcting his errors, it turns out that wind turbines kill far more birds per unit energy than nuclear. But, to Sovacool's credit, that wasn't his main point. His main point was that fatalities from wind and nuclear are very small in comparison to other unnatural sources of fatalities.

And that may have been the case in 2011, with wind supplying a percent or two of our power and nuclear supplying about 20%. Figure 2 shows an estimate of what may happen if we attempt to implement Mark Jacobson's 100%renewable energy plan.

Figure 2: Potential Impact on Mortality from Mark Jacobson's 100% Renewables Scenario (right click + view image to enlarge)

Note that Sovacool's estimate for the annual impact of climate change (23,448,000) from fossil fueled power stations is almost three times lower than Jacobson's impact from wind power (63,193,729), suggesting that the cure is worse than the disease when it comes to bird mortality.

Figure 3 below shows how all values were derived.
Figure 3: Derivation of Data and Sources (right click + view image to enlarge)

Climate change aside, the planet is already deep into a man-made sixth extinction event. In theory, the last thing we should do is expand our industrial footprint into what remains of intact ecosystems. Ideally, we should be restricting the building of new power stations to places like brown fields (abandoned industrial sites like reclaimed mines, closed coal plants, etc) and rooftops.

Most wind farms are located in places that have minimal impact on the local natural ecosystem. The infamous Altamont pass wind farm isn't one of them. The operation of rooftop solar likely has the smallest (if any) impact on local ecosystems of any type of power station. On the other hand, the Ivanpah hybrid solar thermal-natural gas power station was built right on top of intact threatened desert tortoise habitat and according to the official spokesperson for Ivanpah during a tour of the facility last summer, it continues to kill an average of 16 birds a day.

We have to be careful about this. Corporations that install power stations, regardless of type, unless forced to do otherwise, will always prioritize profitability over ecosystem protection. Case in point, the proposed Neart na Gaoithe wind farm has been stopped (for now) following legal action from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds:
RSPB Scotland had been working with the project developers and Scottish Ministers for several years to try and reduce the harm to seabirds.
Unfortunately, consents were granted when thousands of gannets, puffins, kittiwakes and other seabirds from iconic internationally protected wildlife sites like the Bass Rock and the Isle of May were predicted to be killed every year.
The Government’s statutory nature conservation advisors, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, had also raised significant concerns about the wind farms. In these circumstances, RSPB Scotland could not just stand by and let such devastating impacts on Scotland’s wildlife happen without making a stand. Regrettably, legal action was our only option.
However, the company behind this project "...continues to work hard to ensure that this £2 billion significant energy infrastructure project will be built as planned..."

Keep in mind that a starling is to birds what a mouse is to mammals. The death of a starling is akin to the death of a mouse. The death of an eagle is akin to the death of a lion.

Feral house cats (Felis catus) are cats that have become part of the ecosystem. Introduced species around the world have likely led to several extinctions. However, one can argue that the resulting bird deaths from feral Felis catus are no more unnatural than the death of birds in natural ecosystems from other predators, including other birds. Owned cats in cities barely dent the dense populations of common birds found there thanks to all of the bird feeders and nesting sites.

In short, unlike wind power, cats don't kill eagles, hawks, owls, condors, whooping cranes and on, and on, making Sovacool's cat column highly misleading. Although, again, to his credit, Sovacool listed this as a limit to his study:
Biological differences between species is not accounted for, essentially meaning a dead raptor has the same significance as a dead sparrow or starling, even though the former is larger, longer-lived, and higher up the trophic level. 
Similarly, it's uncommon for one of these large birds to be killed by a collision with a window. So, when it comes to the important species at the top of the food chain, his building column is also quite misleading.

Pesticides are a bigger problem for entire ecosystems than most realize. Some studies are suggesting that because many of the pesticides in use today are killing so many non-targeted insects (including honeybees) bird populations are being reduced from a combination of poisoning and lack of food.

And let's not forget about the bats. Bats don't run into buildings. They have sonar. A window looks like a solid wall to them. Cats eat very few bats. Bats also don't eat pesticide laced seeds.

Turbines are having an unanticipated impact on an endangered bat in Hawaii.

Two factors led to a major shift in causes of multiple mortality events s in bats at around 2000: the global increase of industrial wind-power facilities and the outbreak of white-nose syndrome in North America. Collisions with wind turbines and white-nose syndrome are now the leading causes of reported MMEs in bats.

Imagine the look on a farmer's face when he realizes one evening why he has had to increase his use of insecticide. The swarms of bats that once left his barn every evening to eat millions of insects have been wiped out by the turbines now installed in his fields. Then his heart skips a beat as he recalls his young daughter asking earlier in the day where all of the birds have gone.

Although primarily the result of human industry, there is no single cause of this extinction event. Jacobson's 100% renewable plan calls for a massive expansion of human industry in the form of wind turbines and high voltage power lines. 

What's the alternative you may be asking? Replacing existing coal power stations in situ with nuclear power would greatly reduce the need for new transmission lines and wind turbines. And, as it turns out, including significant amounts of nuclear in the mix will reduce costs. See Deep Decarbonization of the Electric Power sector, Insights from Recent Literature by Jesse D. Jenkins and Samuel Thernstrom.

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