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The dark side of wind power

The wind power industry will be celebrating Global Wind Day today, an occasion promoted by the wind lobby group, the American Wind Energy Association, to tout the benefits of wind power. The same group is also pushing to create a “WindMade” certification to identify products made using this energy source.

In principle, there are grounds to celebrate the evolution of wind power into a robust and sustainable element of the world’s energy portfolio, but we need to take the blinders off and look at wind from all sides. And when we do, we see a very significant dark cloud that hangs over what could otherwise be an unabashed celebration of a potentially green power source – the toll that wind turbines exact on bird and bat populations.

In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that about 440,000 birds are likely killed each year by the fast-spinning wind turbines – and that was at a time when the industry was just beginning an expansion that may bring about a 12-fold growth by 2030. It is impossible to determine how many dead birds that will translate into (it depends how and where wind projects are built), but without a sea change in the industry, it will certainly be in the millions.

And it’s not just any birds that are killed. Many iconic American birds have died in encounters with whirling turbine blades: eagles, hawks, kestrels, owls and many songbird species. So the next time you hear someone say, “Cats kill more birds than wind turbines,” remember, cats don’t kill Golden Eagles. And wind power does something else too: Like other forms of development, it destroys bird habitat. In the West, where significant wind power build-out is planned, habitat for the once common but now increasingly rare prairie-chickens and sage-grouse is particularly threatened.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Wind energy can co-exist with birds, but not on the path we’re currently taking. The wind industry will proudly hold up a few wind developments as proof of how it is doing the right thing for birds.

But don’t be fooled: For every one project that is done right, many are being done very wrong–poorly sited in places important for birds or along migratory pathways, and with no planning and with little done to make up for the damage caused.

We cannot expect giant utility conglomerates to do the right thing on their own. In an era where the phrase “government regulation” is viewed by many as dirty as they come, we need to acknowledge that this is one case where additional mandatory federal standards are essential for the future of our birds and their habitats. Instead, the federal government has proposed voluntary guidelines that suggest steps the industry could take to avoid harming birds, but the wind industry’s national trade association has already stated that the industry cannot support them, even though they are only voluntary.

Another set of voluntary federal guidelines for wind projects has been around since 2003, and its advice, especially for how to site wind farms, has been widely ignored. Since the voluntary approach has been tried and failed, it’s time for something mandatory. After all, other energy sectors such as coal, oil, gas, and nuclear don’t get to choose which environmental standards they abide by. Why should wind?

The wind industry wants the WindMade moniker to suggest that wind energy is somehow in harmony with the environment, with nature, and it could be.

If the wind industry would take responsibility for the bird mortality issues and provide the requisite simple fixes, that would go a long way toward bringing that green imagery into focus for all of us.

George Fenwick is president of the American Bird Conservancy.