For decades the wind industry has put out a steady stream of grossly misleading information about its wildlife impact. It continues to claim that the impact of wind turbines is relatively low, and compares the bird deaths it causes to those of housecats, or buildings. But where many of the birds killed by wind turbines are large, threatened, and of high-conservation value, most of the birds killed by house cats, and from collisions with buildings are small, unthreatened, and of low-conservation value, like robins and sparrows. And because big birds have much lower reproductive rates than small birds, their deaths have a far greater impact on the overall population of the species.
Last Saturday, police in New York arrested 70 people protesting the lack of attention to climate change. They unfurled a banner that read, “climate change = mass murder” with the word “change” crossed out and replaced by the word “emergency.”
It was just the latest in a series of high-profile protests organized by an exciting new environmental group, Extinction Rebellion. In April, police in London arrested more than 1,000 people committing civil disobedience during a week of protests.
As police arrested Extinction Rebellion protesters on Waterloo Bridge, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke to activists at nearby Hyde Park. “We are now facing an existential crisis, the climate crisis and ecological crisis, which have never been treated as crises before,” said the 16-year-old.
Extinction Rebellion has attracted popular support. It counts the rock band Radiohead as a financial supporter, and after the April protests, a senior Labour Party leader endorsed the group’s tactics.
One of the main demands of the activists is a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies like solar and wind farms.
“The climate and biodiversity crisis requires urgent and drastic action to decarbonise,” the group tells policymakers. “How can you… reverse the expansion of renewable energy?!”
Both Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion emphasize that their protests are not just about climate change but about broader human threats to endangered species. On its web site, Extinction Rebellion declares, “we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.”
But if Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are so concerned about preventing the extinction of endangered species, why are they advocating the accelerated deployment of renewables? After all, wind energy has emerged as one of the greatest threats to endangered bird and bat species, as well as insect populations, around the world.
Wind Energy’s War on Nature
In many countries, wind turbines pose the single greatest threat to bats after habitat loss and white-nose syndrome. In some places such as Texas, where white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungus, has only recently arrived, wind turbines are the single greatest threat to bats.
And scientists say wind turbines are the single greatest human threat to migratory bats, which live in different habitats during summer and winter months. Some, like the hoary bat, fly south to Mexico during the winter as insects become more scarce in North America.
In 2017, a team of scientists warned that the hoary bat, a migratory species, could go extinct if the expansion of wind farms continues.
“Unprecedented numbers of migratory bats are found dead beneath industrial-scale wind turbines during late summer and autumn in both North America and Europe,” writes Paul Cryan, a research biologist with the US Geological Survey.
Come on, you might be thinking. Surely there are greater threats to migratory bats than wind turbines?
There aren’t. “Wind energy facilities kill a significant number of bats far exceeding any documented natural or human-caused sources of mortality in the affected species,” writes Cryan.
Cryan is emphatic on this point. “There are no other well-documented threats to populations of migratory tree bats that cause mortality of similar magnitude to that observed at wind turbines.”
Another leading bat expert, Patricia Brown, agrees. More than a decade ago she warned California energy regulators that wind turbines could be the “nail in the coffin” for some migratory bat species.
Aren’t bats protected from wind turbines by government agencies enforcing the Endangered Species Act and other conservation laws? They’re not.
“None of the migratory bats known to be most affected by wind turbines are protected by conservation laws,” writes Cryan, “nor is there a legal mandate driving research into the problem or implementation of potential solutions.”
Wind turbines have also emerged as one of the greatest human threats to many species of large, threatened and high-conservation value birds, after habitat loss from agriculture.
Wind energy threatens golden eagles, bald eagles, burrowing owls, red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks, American kestrels, white-tailed kites, peregrine falcons, and prairie falcons, among many others.
The expansion of wind turbines could result in the extinction of the golden eagle in the western United States, where its population is at an unsustainably low level.
Any additional mortalities to the golden eagle threatens the species with extinction, scientists with US Fish and Wildlife warned 10 years ago, before the last decade’s massive expansion of wind farms.
For decades the wind industry has put out a steady stream of grossly misleading information about its wildlife impact. It continues to claim that the impact of wind turbines is relatively low, and compares the bird deaths it causes to those of housecats, or buildings.
But where many of the birds killed by wind turbines are large, threatened, and of high-conservation value, most of the birds killed by house cats, and from collisions with buildings are small, unthreatened, and of low-conservation value, like robins and sparrows.
And because big birds have much lower reproductive rates than small birds, their deaths have a far greater impact on the overall population of the species.
For example, golden eagles will have just one or two chicks in a brood, and usually less than once a year, whereas a songbird like a robin could have up to two broods of three to seven chicks a year.
Wind Turbines And The Insect Die-Off
The decline of insect populations may be worsening the threat to endangered bird and bat species.
“There is strong evidence that many insect populations are under serious threat and are declining in many places across the globe,” notes Extinction Rebellion. “A 27-year long population monitoring study in Germany revealed a dramatic 76% decline in flying insect biomass.”
What Extinction Rebellion does not mention is that scientists in Germany say wind turbines appear to be contributing significantly to what it calls the “insect die-off.”
Germany’s leading technology assessment research institute published a study last October concluding that the rapid expansion of wind farms threatens insect populations.
Wind turbines in Germany alone are resulting in a “loss of about 1.2 trillion insects of different species per year,” concluded Dr. Franz Trieb of the Institute of Engineering Thermodynamics, which “could be relevant for population stability.”
The German wind insect death toll is an astonishing one-third of the total annual insect migration in southern England, a comparison that the scientists say “shows that losses of a trillion per year certainly have a relevant order of magnitude.”
Because insects migrate, the impact of German wind farms is “not limited to local populations, but includes species like the Ladybird beetle (C. septempunctata) and the Painted Lady butterfly (V. cardui) that travel hundreds and even thousands of kilometers through Europe and Africa.”
Insects, birds, bats, and wind farm developers are all attracted to the same thing, Trieb notes: high winds. “Wind-rich migration trails used by insects for millions of years are increasingly seamed by wind farms.”
Dead insects on wind turbine blades are as visible as dead insects on a car windshield. Scientists have reported the significant build-up of dead insects on wind turbine blades for three decades and in different regions around the world.
In the 1990s, the wind industry claimed its turbine blades were too high to threaten flying insects. It also claimed insects flew too slowly to be impacted. Both claims turned out to be completely wrong.
Researchers calculated in 2001 that the build-up of dead insects on wind turbine blades can reduce the electricity they generate by 50%.
Insects cluster at the same altitudes used by wind turbines. In Oklahoma, a major wind energy state, scientists found that the highest density of insects is between 150 to 250 meters. Large new turbine blades stretch from 60 to 220 meters above the ground.
And wind turbines may be killing insects during a “critical, vulnerable period” because “a strong lever action is applied on total insect population by killing a mature insect during migration just before breeding, as hundreds of potential successors from the next generation will be destroyed.”
While some of the media coverage has blamed the expansion of industrial agriculture, it is notable that the biggest insect population declines are being reported in Europe and the United States, where the land area dedicated to agriculture has declined but wind turbines have spread rapidly over the last two decades.
German research scientist Trieb is adamant that the impact of wind farms is significant: “there is no evidence that the impact of wind power generation on flying insect population is negligible.”
Hiding The Truth About Wind Energy
Governments rarely stop wind projects or require changes in wind turbine locations or operations.
Where government agencies routinely require permits for development near wetlands, in order to protect bird species, they rarely require the same for wind farms, even though the wildlife impacts can be far greater.
Nor do governments require that wind developers disclose when they kill birds and bats, or count the dead. Wind developers have even sued to prevent the public from accessing data about bird kills.
Incredibly, wind developers are allowed to self-report violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Only Hawaii requires bird and bat death data to be gathered by an independent third party and to be made available to the public on request.
The “US Fish and Wildlife Service has encouraged wind developers to avoid prosecution for killing eagles by applying for licenses to cover the number of birds who might be struck by wind turbines,” reports Joseph Goldstein in The New York Times.
In the rare circumstances when governments require the wind industry to mitigate their impact, such as by setting aside land elsewhere, there is often little to no enforcement, scientists say.
In other circumstances, wind developers do not follow through on their promises and in some cases lie.
When wind developer “Apex submitted its application to [New York] state in late 2017 to build the wind farm, it said there were no known bald eagle nests on the island, according to public documents reviewed by The Times.”
Later, Apex flew a helicopter over the eagles nest, even though doing so posed a direct threat to the birds. “They destroyed an active eagle’s nest,” said a local conservationist.
While the wind industry has hyped technical fixed, none have proven successful at even demonstration levels.
Curtailment, which is the intentional halting of turbine blades, is the only proven way to reduce the killing of birds, bats and insects.
For example, scientists have found that curtailing wind turbines when wind speed is low can reduce bat fatalities 44% to 93%.
However, very few wind farm developers are willing to commit to curtailment as a means of reducing their impact on the environment, notes Scott Cashen, a biologist that has been reviewing wind farm applications over the past decade.
One US government study found that curtailment levels are lower than 5% of total wind energy generation.
And curtailment often isn’t enough to stop the killings. “In fact, red-tailed hawk fatalities peaked at the 50% of turbines that never operated during the three years of monitoring,” reported Sean Smallwood, another leading scientist studying the impact of wind turbines on bird populations.
Smallwood calls the most-studied wind farm in California, Altamont Pass, a “population sink for golden eagles as well as burrowing owls.”
While Smallwood helped improve the siting of wind turbines to modestly reduce their death toll, he also discovered that scientists had been significantly undercounting bird deaths, in part because scavengers like coyotes quickly eat them, and because body parts were outside the search radius.
“I recently found two golden eagles mortally injured by modern wind turbines just after I had been watching them,” wrote Smallwood in an extensive ritique of the methods relied upon by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Both eagles “ended up outside the maximum search radius, and both left no evidence of their collisions within the search radius.”
As such, the mainstream practice of limiting death counts to search radii “is analogous to excluding highway fatalities,” he writes, “when fatalities are found beyond the road verge.”
Environmental journalists deserve a significant amount of blame for suggesting the problem is either small or has been solved. “Wind farm works to reduce eagle deaths from old turbines,” reads the headline of a PBS Newshour story that typifies journalistic bias.
But greater responsibility for the threatened extinction of birds and bats lies with environmentalists who promote wind energy as good for the environment.
Against the best-available science, Sierra Club claims that “the toll from turbines is far from a major cause of bird mortality.”
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently endorsed a massive expansion of wind turbines on the Great Lakes against the opposition from local wildlife experts, birders, and conservationists, who note that the lakes are one of the world’s most important sanctuaries to many migratory bird species.
And Environmental Defense Fund repeats wind industry misinformation by claiming that “wind turbines kill far fewer songbirds than building collisions or cats” and that “technological solutions are in the works.”
All three organizations are advocating the rapid expansion of wind farms in New York state, even though they pose a direct threat to bald eagles.
Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, for their part, continue to promote industrial scale wind farms, even though they require around 400 times more land than do nuclear power plants, which have never threatened any endangered species.
“Personally I am against nuclear power,” Thunberg said last March, calling the carbon-free energy source “extremely dangerous, expensive and time-consuming.” At best nuclear might be “a small part” of the solution “in countries and areas that lack the possibility of a full-scale renewable energy supply.”
Why They Threaten Extinction
Why do activists like Thunberg who claim to be concerned about climate change and extinction oppose nuclear, which is the only technology that has decarbonized a majority of a nation’s electricity supply, and support wind farms, which are threatening the extinction of birds and bats?
It can’t be because nuclear is “extremely dangerous, expensive and time-consuming.” After all, the science is clear that nuclear is the safest way to make electricity, and both the fastest and cheapest way to decarbonize energy.
Nor can it be because activists believe climate change and species extinction are an “emergency.” If they did, they would be committing civil disobedience to block new wind farms rather than to build them.
A more likely scenario is that Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion want what anti-nuclear advocates of renewables have always wanted: recognition, followers, and the political power to impose their low-energy lifestyle on society.
The problem with nuclear energy is that it requires neither radical lifestyle change, system overthrow, or renewables. It has the apparent disadvantage of simply decoupling human welfare from air pollution and the killing of wildlife.
Their advocacy of renewables suggests that climate activists like Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion either don’t want to solve or simply don’t care very much about climate change or species extinction. After all, it’s the apparent intractability of the problem that make their protests seem exciting and necessary.
As such, Extinction Rebellion resembles not so much a environmental movement as a religious one. Only a deep religious fervor could justify extinctions to prevent extinctions.
While radical climate activists like Extinction Rebellion insist that their motivations are selfless, their advocacy of a technology that threatens the hoary bat and golden eagle with extinction betrays something closer to the opposite.
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