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Wind turbines: Opinions on effects on birds differ

A wind generator developer and an Erie resident draw differing conclusions from the same data study on how a planned project will affect local birds and wildlife.

An essay “Do wind turbines kill birds?” posted online at the Parsons Sun website, Nov. 16 by Erie resident Andrew Burnett, brought an email response by Dave Phillips, director of wildlife permitting with Apex Clean Energy. Apex plans to construct wind turbines to generate up to 300 megawatts of electricity in southwest Neosho County at the Neosho Ridge project.

Both Phillips and Burnett cite the 2013 study “Estimates of bird collision mortality at wind facilities in the contiguous United States” by Scott Loss, Tom Will and Peter Marra, but Phillips disputes Burnett’s statements.

Burnett states that 10 to 300 birds will be killed each year per turbine, and bases his figures on 140 turbines for a mid-range estimate of 20,000 bird-strikes per year. Burnett cites cardinals as an example of birds that reside in the local area, claiming that half of the total bird-strikes would be resident birds and the other half migratory.

Phillips said these estimates are not substantiated, and that cardinals are not the type of bird that would reside in tilled agricultural fields. He estimates two to three birds per megawatt each year, or 600 to 900 total each year. The Scott, Will and Marra report gives a mortality of 1 to 2.62 birds per megawatt, or 300 to 660 birds total, in a study of 53 wind projects totaling 271 turbines in the Great Plains area. For the nation as a whole, the study figures 3.15 to 7.35 birds per turbine.

Apex has not announced a final definite number of turbines, based on the necessary setbacks, space available and the cost versus capacity of different models and manufacturers, but said early on that it would erect 100 to 130 winadmills for 300 MW. A filing with the Federal Aviation Administration listed 174 possible sites for approval.

Burnett also predicts that taller turbines than those in the study would increase the death toll, while Phillips said taller windmills means that fewer are needed to generate the same amount of power. Burnett also predicts that bat collisions would be up to four times the number of bird collisions.

For comparison, the FAA counted 177,269 reports of wildlife striking civilian aircraft between 1990 and 2015, with birds making up 97 percent. According to the 2005 FAA wildlife hazard manual, 61 percent of aviation bird strikes happen below 100 feet.

The Fatal Light Awareness Program in Toronto, Canada, estimates between one and nine million birds die each year in the city from hitting skyscrapers. In 2014, an article in the bird-watching magazine Condor estimated 365 million to 988 million birds die each year by colliding with building in the United States.

An additional phenomenon is the collision of birds with antenna towers, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates kills between 5 and 50 million birds per year.

“The estimated total number of bird collision fatalities at wind energy facilities is several orders of magnitude lower than other leading anthropogenic sources of avian mortality,” a 2015 report “Wind Turbine Interactions with Wildlife and Their Habitats,” by the American Wind Wildlife Institute states. It also said the currently estimated values are unlikely to lead to population declines in most bird species.

Phillips also said the Neosho Ridge project is doing eagle nest surveys within US Fish and Wildlife-recommended areas. He said the eagle use surveys are a minimum of a full year for site and risk decisions. The USFWS and Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism will review the studies.

“If a project was to cause unauthorized mortality of bald eagles, this would be a very significant issue resulting in substantial cost and liability for the project; we take this issue very seriously in our siting,” Phillips said. “No power buyer or financing entities would engage on a project where this risk was not managed conservatively.”

He said Burnett’s suggestion of one to ten bald eagles killed every two or three years is a complete misrepresentation.

Phillips said that there are 55 known bald eagle fatalities total, despite more than 50,000 operating turbines.

Phillips said bird numbers and species have changed dramatically, and the changes are thought to be associated with habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change.

“Given the threats caused by the changing climate, the Neosho Wind Project is actually part of the solution for declining bird species,” Phillips said.