New efforts underway to help wind energy achieve full conservation potential
By Nicole Rivard
“The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
Bob Dylan’s lyrics have been described as ambiguous: Either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind.
Likewise, when considering if wind power will ever reach its full conservation potential to combat the climate crisis, uncertainty remains.
While we know generating electricity with wind power avoids the carbon emissions of fossil fuels, there’s no question land-based wind power has had a history of negatively impacting bats, raptors and other species. There is a reason the U.S. Dept. of Energy is spending more than $30 million to research how wind turbines affect wildlife and to develop innovative technologies that can minimize impacts.
“While we need to prioritize clean energy development, we also need to learn from the mistakes of the past and the fossil fuel industry’s reckless growth,” said Jennifer Best, director of Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program. “Considering the impact to wildlife in determining how and where to develop wind energy and requiring that the industry take steps to protect vulnerable wildlife, can lead to a more responsible and lasting energy system.”
The discourse is shifting to offshore wind farms as the Biden administration jumpstarts that segment of the industry. In July, it approved the largest U.S. offshore wind farm off the New Jersey coast. The Ocean Wind 1 project will be capable of powering over 380,000 homes. The administration has approved three other major offshore wind energy projects in the U.S.so far—two are under construction. Only one offshore wind facility, off Block Island, RI. is currently operating.
Some conservationists were calling for a moratorium on offshore wind survey projects in the U.S. after two dead sperm whales and seven dead humpback whales washed up along the coast in New York and New Jersey from Dec. 1, 2022, to Jan. 17, 2023. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there was no evidence to support speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could cause mortality of whales. The agency pointed out that its research on 183 whale deaths since 2016 found that 40% of them resulted from human interaction, either from ship strikes or fishing net entanglement.
FoA prompted the agency to explore the whale deaths further in comments submitted to NOAA in February and May about two offshore wind projects off the coast of New York and New Jersey. Government officials often say things like there is “no evidence” to support the claim that wind energy is causing the deaths because they are not studying the impact, or they are looking the other way.
It is well known that whales and other marine mammals are sentient and highly intelligent creatures who use a complex system of sonography and echolocation to communicate and travel. It has been documented that underwater soundwaves from human activities—such as military operations, construction operations and geography surveys preceding offshore development—can interfere with marine mammals’ ability to utilize their echolocation and sonographic abilities. Science has shown that such soundwaves can cause behavioral changes and stress in marine mammals that can, sometimes, lead to episodes of beaching.
Vessel traffic and underwater sound pollution from wind energy facility development, including pile driving and other construction methods, undoubtedly contribute to such interference. Several studies in Europe indicated reductions in local activity and potential displacement of harbor porpoises from the acoustic disturbance caused by pile driving.
Wind turbines are also getting bigger—blades average 210 feet long, and turbine towers average over 320 feet tall—taller than the Statue of Liberty. They’re roughly nine times the size of those constructed 40 years ago.
As turbine technology evolves, so will the relationship between wind energy and wildlife. So we reached out to the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to find out about the benefits of wind power and what is being done to help reduce the negative impacts on wildlife.
Why is wind power a powerful tool in the fight against the climate crisis?
Wind is an inexhaustible resource that provides electricity without burning any fuel or polluting the air. Wind continues to be the largest source of renewable power in the United States, which helps reduce power sector emissions of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide.
Wind energy helps avoid 329 million metro tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually—equivalent to 71 million cars worth of emissions that along with our atmospheric emissions cause acid rain, smog and greenhouse gases.
The health and climate benefits of wind far exceed the levelized cost of wind. For projects built in 2022, the estimated public health benefits, climate benefits and value to the grid are worth more than five times the cost of generating electricity from wind energy.
What percentage of U.S. electricity generation is provided by wind power?
In 2023, wind energy provided 10% of total electricity nationwide, more than 60% of power in Iowa (62%), and over 30% of power in South Dakota (55%), Kansas (47%), Oklahoma (44%), North Dakota (37%), New Mexico (35%) and Nebraska (31%).
Texas leads the country in cumulative capacity, with over 40,000 megawatts installed, followed by Iowa (12,783 MW), and Oklahoma (12,222 MW).
Apprehension about wind energy’s potential impacts on wildlife goes way back. In the early 1990s there were concerns about the golden eagle. Can you talk about what other species you have found to be the most vulnerable and steps that are being taken to protect them?
Eagles, prairie grouse and bats are deemed priority species for DOE engagement based on regulatory protection and/or vulnerability to wind energy impacts. Currently our primary focus for land-based wind is bats due to concerns related to population level impacts for migratory tree-roosting bats, particularly the hoary bat.
The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative has been engaged in numerous studies assessing the effectiveness of curtailment and the use of ultrasonic acoustic deterrents that “jam” bats’ echolocation to dissuade them from entering the airspace around wind turbines.
Curtailment is the angling of wind turbine blades parallel to the wind to slow or stop them from turning when risk of collision is determined to be high. Curtailment can, on average, reduce bat mortality by 50% or more.
Recently, member companies of the American Wind Energy Association voluntarily committed to slowing blade rotations during the bats’ fall migration season. To counteract the lower energy output and resulting economic effects caused by curtailment, researchers are working on smart technology designed to curtail wind operations only when bats are present.
Software developed in 2022 at the National Renewable Energy Lab aims to predict the most likely long-distance flight paths of individual golden eagles as they ride updrafts at the same altitudes as wind turbine blades. These maps highlight potential interactions, if any, where thousands of flight paths may coincide with wind turbine locations. This helps users evaluate turbine placement options that might be less dangerous for birds, as well as optimize curtailment measures.