Wind power is key to efforts to produce clean, limitless energy and to slow global warming. It's one of the world's fastest-growing energy industries. But there is mounting evidence that expanding "wind farms" are taking a toll on airborne wildlife. Thousands of birds and bats are killed every year by collisions with the the wind towers and their giant blades. Environmental activists are taking the wind energy industry to court to find a solution.
Estimates by the Department of Energy indicate that in the United States alone, there will be more than 100,000 wind turbines by 2030.
John Anderson is policy director at the American Wind Energy Association. “As time goes on, I think you will see wind replacing older plants that are being taken offline, but we are really capturing the new installation market," he said.
But wind energy developers, in California and West Virginia, are being sued by environmental groups. A growing number of groups contend that hundreds of thousands of birds and bats are being killed every year by wind turbines, mostly at night when bats and migratory birds fly around mountain ridges where many wind farms are located.
Kelly Fuller, with the American Bird Conservancy, said, “In 2009, an expert at the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated 440,000 birds were being killed by wind turbines a year. That was before we had more growth of the industry.”
West Virginia, in the eastern U.S., is a migratory corridor for birds. It's also an important habitat for bats -- millions of which have been dying from White Nose Syndrome. The illness has brought some species to the brink of extinction. Now they face another threat. This amateur video shows bats flying at sunset near wind turbines in West Virginia.
Judy Rodd is director of Friends of Blackwater, a West Virginia conservation group. She says this cave, close to a wind farm, houses thousands of hibernating bats during the winter. “The first year, they found 430 dead bats and I think 50 dead birds in a very preliminary sketchy study. The expert that analyzed those numbers, Dr. Tom Kunz from Boston University, estimated that finding 430 dead bats meant that actually 10,000 bats had been killed in one year," she said.
That's because the carcasses are scavenged by foxes, crows and other predators.
The U.S. government supports wind energy development to reduce the use of fossil fuels and to fight global warming.
David Cottingham is senior adviser at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says the service does not have the authority to halt a wind project that's on a migratory path. “But we do have the authority to prosecute them for violating the endangered species act," he said.
Despite efforts to reduce wildlife collisions, no permanent solution has been found. The wind industry opposes shutting down or limiting turbine operations.
Industry, government, and environmental experts agree that choosing different locations for wind farms could be a good solution. But often the best wind currents are found in the paths that migratory birds and bats have been using for millions of years.