American Bird Conservancy has major concerns about Apex’s plan to build the Lighthouse Wind energy project in Niagara and Orleans counties. The project proposes to place dozens of industrial wind turbines along the south shore of Lake Ontario, extending 4.5 miles from the shore along a 12-mile stretch of shoreline.
A postcard recently sent by Apex suggests that the number of wind-related bird fatalities is small compared to the overall number of bird deaths attributed to human activities. In the study they cite, the annual loss of birdlife to wind turbines is “only” 134,000 to 230,000. The data sounds persuasive, but there are a number of serious problems with the conclusions they present. Basically, Apex is cherry-picking data to make its case. They are cloaking much larger losses by just presenting a small and outdated subset.
The study Apex cited is just one of many that estimate bird casualties from wind turbines, and this particular report only looks at wind-related deaths among small passerines (perching birds or songbirds). It does not include raptors, waterbirds, waterfowl, or game birds. The report also relies on information that is extremely outdated, including some statistics that are 18 years old. The wind energy landscape has changed dramatically in that time.
In 2000 there were just a handful of utility-scale turbines. That number has since increased to more than 54,000 turbines (according to the American Wind Energy Association). In addition to the turbines, think about the thousands of miles of transmission lines (another significant source of bird mortality) that were added to connect wind farms to the energy grid. In reality, the number of bird deaths annually from wind turbines is increasing dramatically.
American Bird Conservancy estimates the current annual number of bird fatalities at approximately 1 million (based on new, independent studies that use canines for improved carcass detection), and that figure is projected to grow to between 3 and 5 million annually by 2050, based on the expected growth of the wind energy industry.
The fact that there are other causes of bird mortality that kill more birds doesn’t mean that we should ignore the problems presented by wind turbines. That’s equivalent to saying that, because heart disease is the leading cause of human mortality in the United States, we should ignore the impact of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, or kidney disease. We must consider the cumulative effects of these different sources of human-caused bird fatalities given the impact that they have individually and cumulatively on the entire bird population in our country.
American Bird Conservancy supports a bird-smart wind energy policy that is designed to minimize bird fatalities, adhering to the following principles:
— Ensures turbines are located away from areas posing a high risk of bird collisions;
— Employs effective mitigation to minimize bird fatalities;
— Conducts independent, transparent pre- and post-construction monitoring of bird and bat deaths to help inform mitigation; and
— Calculates compensation for the loss of ecologically important and state- or federally protected birds.
Wind energy and birds can coexist, but only if turbines are sited properly. From the perspective of wildlife conservation, the Great Lakes are one of the worst possible places to put wind turbines because they comprise a Global Important Bird Area, defined by BirdLife International as a place of international significance for the conservation of birds and other biodiversity. During spring and fall, vast numbers of birds and bats, many of which migrate at night, gather along the shorelines and eventually fly along or over the lakes during their annual migration to and from the boreal forests of Canada where they breed. The cumulative impact of the many existing and planned projects in the region is likely to be substantial.
Only through proper risk assessment, siting, and post-construction monitoring can such conflicts with wildlife be avoided or minimized. At present, regulations governing siting are weak at best. Paid consultants to the wind industry conduct the risk assessments and collect and report post-construction mortality data, which is a direct conflict of interest. Some companies have sued to keep their data secret, making public oversight difficult, if not impossible.
Apex Clean Energy states that they anticipate an investment of more than $500,000 toward conservation at each of the wind projects they are proposing for western New York. Although this sounds generous, please know that they are required to mitigate for the loss of birds due to their poorly cited towers. All the more reason New York residents should hold Apex Wind and the state accountable when it comes to open, honest, and transparent risk assessments and reports of post-construction mortality data. This is the only way to ensure poorly sited projects do not advance, and that projects that do advance accurately address the true cost of mitigation.
In the case of wind energy, careful wind generation siting is crucial in preventing unintended impacts on America’s native bird species, and we are concerned that the proposed site for this project poses an unacceptably high risk to protected wildlife species.
Shawn Graff is vice president of the Great Lakes Region of American Bird Conservancy.