The renewable energy sector is growing astronomically, and wind power is leading the way. In the United States, electricity generated by wind power doubled between 2010 and 2018. It will continue to grow in the next decade, as the energy sector continues to trend away from fossil fuels.
Wind power is clean, efficient and easily installed. However, turbines pose issues for local ecosystems, degrading habitats and harming wildlife. According to the U.S Department of Energy, the United States is one of the fastest-growing wind markets. With farms being installed across the country, it is essential to mitigate the impact of turbines on local wildlife. Species that are especially susceptible to wind power are birds and bats, hundreds of thousands of whom are killed each year by turbines.
Most species of birds and bats are extremely sensitive to noise. Bats, in particular, can locate objects based on the reflection of sound, through a process known as echolocation. Conservationists are collaborating with engineers to create ultrasonic sound boxes that will warn bats of wind turbines.
This technology, known as ultrasonic acoustic determent, emits high-frequency sounds that confuse bats and warn them to stay away from the general area. While the technology is still in the early stages of development, tests have demonstrated that these sound devices can reduce the number of bat deaths by half.
Studies have found that bats are more active in low-wind weather patterns. Innovations in wind technology include turbines that can operate at a lower energy speed, and even stop running when wind potential is low. This can prevent harming bats traveling through low-wind weather patterns.
Some wind farms have started painting turbines with UV-reflective paint to reduce the number of wildlife collisions. The European Journal of Wildlife Research found that particular turbine colors attract certain insects, which in turn attracts their predators. Scientists are also experimenting with using UV lights to deter bats from wind farms, which is easily transmitted through the air and undetectable by humans.
Design alterations also play a role in wind turbine speed. For bird populations, including endangered species like the golden eagle, perches on wind turbines can look like attractive places to rest. Scientists and engineers are also exploring the efficiency and safety of vertical axis rotors, which may reduce the number of bird interactions.
Site selection is the most important factor in reducing the biological impact of wind turbines. Unfortunately, too many wind farms are installed without consideration for the local ecosystem, and no preventative measures are taken. While it is impossible to avoid impact completely, the American Bird Conservancy suggests avoiding areas that are identified as critical to certain species, such as wetlands and migratory flight paths.
Unlike solar, wind power is a little more restricted in its placement. However, it is easily installed on previously degraded areas, such as industrial or commercial brownfields. These sites are preferable to more sensitive ecosystems that are home to innumerable wildlife.
Clearing the Air for Wildlife
While the effects of turbines on wildlife are not to be overlooked, it is important to note that the number of bird and bat deaths from wind farms annually is only a fraction compared to deaths from building collisions, which are estimated at one billion every year. That being said, with the energy industry transitioning toward more renewable systems, truly sustainable electricity generation must be sustainable for wildlife, too.
With the widespread installation of wind farms across the United States, there are several factors to consider to ensure delicate ecosystems are not being impacted. To reduce the ecological footprint of wind turbines, engineers and developers will need to pay close attention to the site selected and the design of the turbine, and also acknowledge additional devices that could help reduce bird and bat fatalities.
Using sensory data and other innovative tools, developers can study the impact of a potential wind farm before construction. Taking preventive measures will play a key role in the sustainability of wind energy and its influence on the environment. The power of wind generation is promising, but it will be important to protect wildlife as this technology expands.
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Cover image by J. Marijs.