Green Energy Calculated to Kill Birds
Bird deaths figure into the equations for wind turbines. Many more will die because of bad data.
Gannets are beautiful seabirds with elegant silky-white wings that nest on cliffs; they are featured in nature documentaries like Winged Migration. They soar above the ocean shores, and dive like darts into the water in search of fish. Unfortunately, engineers intent on “green energy” to reduce atmospheric carbon are eyeing the same habitat. Offshore wind farms are being planned in Scotland after initial models estimated that “only” 125 breeding pairs would be killed each year by the project. They were off by a factor of 12. New estimates based on better observations, PhysOrg says, indicate that 1,500 breeding pairs of gannets will die each year by the spinning blades.
So is this new data halting the project? There’s no indication that this discouraging news will do anything more than adjust the equations for the cost of doing business. “The government expects offshore wind power could supply between eight and 10% of the UK’s annual electricity supply by 2020,” the article concludes. “It currently supplies about 4%, according to the latest official figures.”
Supporters of wind energy argue that the fatality figures are far lower than bird deaths from coal and oil. A chart in ThinkProgress.org—reproduced around the web by news media and green energy advocates—would lead one to believe that turbine deaths are far, far lower than the fossil fuel numbers. If so, it represents an improvement. The article goes on to say, though, that the estimates are arrived at by different methods, and “the data on bird deaths is gathered from different advocacy and industry groups, academic institutions, and government sources.” For these reasons, “The results should be taken with a grain of salt.”
As for coal, those bird death numbers came from a peer-reviewed study in the journal Renewable Energy . That estimate had a more sweeping methodology, though, with the study’s author including everything from coal mining to production — and bird deaths from climate change that coal emissions produce.
It would seem that a journal like Renewable Energy has a vested interest in promoting wind over coal. How can one predict bird deaths from climate change? That’s a very theory-laden calculation that would require knowledge of future world-wide effects on many thousands of species of birds with different habitats. One can simply count dead birds below wind farms and solar plants. Wouldn’t those numbers be far higher if manufacturing and production of the turbines, and their maintenance, were included the way they estimated for coal? How about the rest of the infrastructure for wind farms were taken into account, including transmission lines and trucking of maintenance workers and supplies? And how would the death toll look if measurements were made in units of deaths per kilowatt instead of total deaths per year? Obviously coal has larger numbers of total bird deaths, too, because it is the major energy source now. As wind farms increase, bird habitat options will decrease, and bird deaths can be expected to skyrocket.
One must beware of “political” science. Giving total numbers of bird deaths glosses over substantive questions. How many of the birds being killed by various energy sources are endangered species, or apex predators? There are concerns that eagles and other raptors are most at risk for wind turbines; bats, too. What factors are being included in a data point? What factors are excluded? Who is doing the study, and where is the funding coming from?
The study jokes that cats kill far more birds than all energy projects combined. Environmentalists should know, though, that cats generally go after small, common garden birds—not eagles, great horned owls or California condors. And they should know that animal predation is natural. We don’t fault cats for doing what their instincts are designed to do. Humans, by contrast, have a choice about what impact they have on nature. One assumes cats kill birds usually for food. Birds killed by wind turbines do not serve the ecology at all.
When government subsidizes something, there is potential for graft and corruption. Environmental impact reports can be rushed or fudged to get the contract. There have been wind and solar projects where entrepreneurs grabbed the money, built monstrosities that ruined beautiful views or prime habitats, then took off with the profits, leaving others to deal with the consequences. Huge solar and wind farms in Palmdale, California, for instance, popped up overnight with government subsidies. They scraped the desert floor clean, causing severe dust storms and ruining prime habitat for California poppies, despite the fact that these impacts were warned about in the EIR. At the California border with Nevada, huge new solar plants are igniting birds in mid-air.
Environmentalists will sometimes scream and shout to halt fracking, but their outrage over the killing of beautiful birds by “green energy” projects is sadly lacking in reports like this. Reporters, too, can fail to look critically at quoted numbers. Let the reader beware, and weep a little for gannets facing the guillotine.