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Green energy policies that kill bats

Early expectations for green energy, especially from wind, were exciting. We all wanted to believe in a source of energy that was clean and endlessly renewable, one that would permit us to minimize the consequences of expanding population and consumption.

Bats often fall amid rubble or regrown vegetation where many remain undetected, even in well-timed searches. Estimates of numbers killed are very conservative.

When we began to discover that there are no free rides, we still optimistically believed we’d soon find solutions. I organized the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, a partnership among bat conservationists, government agencies, and the wind industry, and we all shared high hopes for rapid progress.

We were surprised to find far more serious threats than previously suspected. However, encouraging discoveries were also made. By simple curtailment of spinning turbines at low wind speeds, when energy production was minimal, bat kills could be reduced by an average of 83% with a less than 1% loss in power production. A review of early discoveries is available.

Unexpectedly, many companies, including some of America’s largest, simply refused to implement scientific discoveries. What began with high hopes has too often become a cover for companies to neglect threats to wildlife. The public is now misled by reports of seldom implemented research progress. Faced with rapid industry expansion, the current goal of reducing bat kills by 50% is inadequate, and far below what is actually achievable.

Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment” award winner, Michael Shellenberger, who’s articles have appeared in many prestigious publications, from Scientific American to The Wall Street Journal, recently confronted some painful truths. In his Forbes magazine article titled, “Why Climate Activists Threaten Endangered Species with Extinction,” he provides serious food for thought.

Yes, I too was once influenced by sensational media reporting that opposed nuclear power, but decades of experience tell a different story. We have yet to find a source of truly green energy, and each has its own unique risks.

Even a large hoary bat, in plain sight (center), can be almost invisible to searchers and easily missed.

When promoting wind energy, we often ignore the resources required to build even one turbine, approximately 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete, and 45 tons of non-recyclable plastic, not to mention the energy required for extraction and transport to distant locations. Turbines are built from non-renewable materials that wear out and eventually must be replaced. As currently envisioned conversion to renewable energy would require the biggest expansion of mining the world has ever seen as well as huge quantities of waste and inevitable pollution.

We urgently do need to reduce our global assault on the natural systems required for our survival. But atmospheric carbon dioxide is only one of many threats. We pollute our environment with billions of pounds of pesticides, herbicides, and industrial toxicants annually and carelessly destroy forests essential to carbon removal.

Biologist Jessica Kern examining part of a night’s kill at a West Virginia wind farm in 2004. Her team found that most dead bats are removed by scavengers within the first 24 hours, though searches to document numbers killed are often conducted at one to four-week intervals.

In fact, a recently published report in the journal Science, suggests that curbing deforestation and planting more trees is the cheapest, most effective way to tackle the climate crisis. In equatorial regions bats play key roles in reforestation.

One of the worst examples of lax government enforcement of environmental legislation protecting bats involves non-enforcement of “incidental take” permits. These are issued to protect against accidental killing or harm to a federally listed endangered species by an otherwise lawful project. In the case of wind farm impacts on bats, developers are required to submit a Habitat Conservation Plan. Even good plans too often fail to be implemented or enforced. At a specific site, there is a specified number of endangered bats that can be legally killed. Beyond that number, a company must pay a fine for each additional individual.

In proposing new wind farms, developers often promise ridiculously low bat kills, knowing that government agencies often will simply raise the allowed number when permitted rates are exceeded.