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Province downplays bird death issue as it expands wind power

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says Alberta is taking precautions to ensure minimal effects on bird and bat populations as it expands the use of wind power in the province, but says allegations that wind energy is a major killer of winged wildlife have been vastly overblown in the past.

Conservationists aren’t so sure, however, and believe the province must do more to mitigate an increasing threat to birds and bats from new turbines in the province coming over the next decade.

Alberta currently has about 900 operating wind turbines with the third-largest generating capacity among provinces, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association. The NDP government wants to significantly boost wind energy, with a plan to have 30 per cent of Alberta’s power supply coming from renewables such as wind, solar and hydro by 2030.

Opponents of the NDP have accused it of taking a hard line on the environmental effect of fossil-fuel projects such as the oilsands, while subsidizing wind power technology that has a far greater effect on wildlife.

But in a recent interview, Phillips said that critique is misguided.

“The fact of the matter is, a lot of this is based on some myths about renewable energy,” said Phillips.

“There are certainly environmental effects from everything that we do, everything, including renewable energy. However, it is often vastly overstated and it’s a well-loved conspiracy theory that the environmental effects are somehow devastating to either the migratory bird or bat population.”

The province notes that a 2013 Environment Canada study on the causes of bird deaths – estimated at around 269 million annually in Canada – found 95 per cent were caused by cat predation and collisions with windows, vehicles and power lines, with wind generation not rating among the top factors.

The government estimates that each existing wind turbine in Alberta causes the deaths of two to three birds and three to seven bats annually, putting the current totals at between 1,800 and 2,700 birds, and 2,700 and 6,300 bats provincially.

Alberta has had monitoring and mitigation programs in place for wind turbines in the past but earlier this year issued an updated wildlife directive for new wind power projects. That document bans wind turbines from parks, wetlands and areas with species at risk, and requires three years of post-construction monitoring, the “most stringent ” in Canada, according to the government.

Phillips said that with advances in technology and research, many of the potential problems with wind turbines can be avoided with proper siting and design.

“My direction from the very beginning was that we will have the best and most rigorous environmental directives with respect to wind and utility-scale solar on this continent,” she said.

But Mike Anissimoff, bat conservation specialist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, sees holes in the province’s guidelines.

In an interview, he said the government should have specific plans for both bird and bat populations, and should require extensive monitoring before construction begins in order to set up a “no go map” for wind projects.

Anissimoff said new wind projects, because they are sited in rural areas, may affect important bird species that have been less susceptible to cat predation and the varying types of collisions that cause bird deaths in urban areas.

The situation is likely more acute for bats, which can be killed not only by colliding with wind turbines but barotrauma – in which the change in air pressure caused by the turbine can be fatal, he said.

Anissimoff said the province’s estimates of bat deaths may be low, noting that one very conservative study put the number for Alberta at around 8,200 annually.

With bats’ lower rate of population growth, that raises concern about a significant expansion of turbines in the province.

“It could be suggested the (current) numbers are unsustainable. So, with that increase, it’s very likely these wind turbines will have an adverse impact on population dynamics of local bat species,” said Anissimoff.

Ian Urquhart, spokesman for the Alberta Wilderness Association, said the group plans to look much more closely at the growth of wind power in the province, especially as many new projects will likely be located in environmentally sensitive grasslands areas.

He said that while the province has issued a new directive, there are significant questions about how those measures will be enforced.

While technology had advanced and knowledge has improved, “I’m not sure it’s enough, given the scale of what could be taking place,” said Urquhart.

Despite their concerns, both the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the Alberta Wilderness Association support Alberta’s move toward renewables – which accompanies an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired power – because it is more environmentally friendly.

It’s a point emphasized by the government, which points out that groups such as the Audubon Society have backed wind power because they believe climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions is a greater threat to bird populations.

In a statement, the province says that while wind generation is expected to more than triple by 2030, that doesn’t mean three times the current number of turbines, because newer models produce more power.

The government says Alberta will also review what is being done in other jurisdictions to improve policies and best practises.