The rush is on to build scores of large, commercial wind energy facilities in and around the Great Lakes, in Canada and the United States. From the proposed Galloo Island and Lighthouse projects in New York to Camp Perry and Icebreaker in Ohio and Amherst Island and White Pines in Ontario, developers are looking to flood the region with renewable energy. But at what cost?
Many see renewable energy, including wind energy, as an important way to cut our dependence on fossil fuels and address global climate change. But this “green” revolution has a dark side. Collisions with wind turbines are killing hundreds of thousands of birds and bats annually. When you include collisions and electrocutions at associated power lines and towers, the number of birds killed climbs into the tens of millions.
These impacts are likely to grow along with the number of turbines and power lines constructed, a number that is increasing rapidly. American Bird Conservancy estimates that by 2050, when wind energy is projected to produce 35 percent of our electrical energy, as many as 5 million birds per year could be killed by turbines in the United States alone.
From the perspective of wildlife conservation, the Great Lakes are one of the worst possible places to put wind energy. During spring and fall, these large freshwater lakes pose a significant barrier to birds and bats during their annual migration to and from the boreal forests of Canada where they breed. Vast numbers of birds and bats, many of which migrate at night, gather along the shorelines and eventually fly along or over the lakes. Advanced radar studies conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Michigan, Ohio and New York have all confirmed the danger that large-scale wind energy development poses to migratory birds and bats in the region.
The Great Lakes themselves are also an important habitat for water birds. Lake Erie was recently designated a Globally Important Bird Area because of the large numbers of water birds that use the lake. Large-scale commercial wind turbines have the potential to threaten or displace them.
Only through proper risk assessment, siting and post-construction monitoring can such conflicts with wildlife be avoided or contained. At present, regulations governing siting are weak at best. Paid consultants to the wind industry conduct the risk assessments and also collect and report post-construction mortality data – a direct conflict of interest. Some companies have sued to keep their data secret, making public oversight difficult if not impossible.
If any area in the United States and Canada should be avoided for wind energy development, it is the Great Lakes region, one of the world’s largest confluences of migratory birds and bats. The cumulative impact of the many existing and planned projects in the region could be substantial and cannot be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
We must make clean energy a priority, but how we do it is important. Our ecologically and economically important birds and bats should not be collateral damage in our battle against climate change.
Michael Hutchins is director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy campaign.
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