That rapidly growing wind power development kills birds in ever increasing numbers is clear. That it also kills whales and other marine mammals is becoming clear. So the policy question is how much killing is enough, before we stop killing more? This question seems not to be asked.
The stampede to build huge amounts of wind power, on land and at sea, is potentially devastating to a great many species. Our focus has been on the growing threat to whales and other marine mammals from offshore industrial wind.
But this is just part of a much deeper pattern of runaway wind killing. For now let’s consider the indifference of the Biden Administration to land based killing of birds.
To begin with there is the golden eagle. This majestic species is the largest bird of prey in western North America, where wind development is growing rapidly. Its population is much smaller than the familiar bald eagle and may be diminishing.
The golden eagle is protected under the Eagle Act, just as the whales are under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Wind facilities require so-called “incidental take permits” for killing golden eagles issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Turns out there is a problem, namely the wind industry is ignoring the Eagle Law and not getting the required permits. I am not making this up. Here is how the FWS puts it:
“For golden eagles, a goal of the 2016 Eagle Rule was to increase compliance and improve consistency and efficiency relating to permitting golden eagle take at wind-energy projects. However, those goals have not been realized. While participation in the permit program by wind energy projects has increased since 2016, it still remains well below our expectations. Low application rates and permit-processing requirements that some have perceived as burdensome have resulted in few permits being issued for wind projects as compared to the number of operational wind projects in areas where golden eagles occur. As a result, golden eagles continue to be taken without implementation of conservation actions to offset that take.”
So few permits are being issued to wind projects that threaten golden eagles and there are a lot of those.
Is the Biden FWS threatening a crackdown on this wanton lawlessness? Not at all. Instead they propose to make permitting easier by making it less effective. Endless billions of dollars worth of wind projects think eagle kill permitting is too “burdensome” so the Biden bunch propose to ease up on them. Damn the eagles, full speed ahead.
In fact the FWS proposal is to do away with site specific permits and instead create a “general permit” that covers all normal wind projects. All a billion dollar project has to do is sign up and pay a tiny fee, which supposedly somehow mitigates the upcoming eagle deaths.
As part of this general permit the eagle killing is exempt from NEPA, or rather the entire project is as long as eagle killing is all they are doing. No EIS certainly speeds things up, but not in a good way for the eagles.
Also the requirement that an independent observer count the dead eagles is gone in the general permit. We will just depend on the wind facility operators (who have not been getting permits) to tell us when they have killed too many birds.
Clearly this is a huge policy move that favors wind development at the expense of the eagles. Biden said that every federal agency should do whatever it can to promote renewables and this proposal meets that test.
Beyond the eagles, which are relatively small in number, there lie the rest of the dead birds. Wind turbines are called “bird choppers” for good reason. How many birds are we talking about killing?
Interestingly there was a lot of research on this question a decade ago, when wind just started winding up, but very little today. A good example is a 2013 paper titled “Estimates of bird collision mortality at wind facilities in the contiguous United States”, Biological Conservation, Volume 168, December 2013, Pages 201-209.
They estimated about 250,000 bird deaths a year. With around 50,000 MW of installed capacity, that is roughly 5 deaths per MW per year. That is already a lot if dead birds, but it gets much worse when we look ahead at the Biden Administration’s goal of “net zero” emissions.
I recently wrote about a new Tesla analysis of the renewable power requirements for net zero. These are enormous because in addition to providing power when the sun shines and the wind blows hard, they have to make enough hydrogen to generate our juice when it doesn’t.
Tesla says we will need a whopping 2 million MW of wind capacity for net zero. At five bird deaths per MW that is an incredible 10 million deaths a year. This would be something like 300 million dead birds over the combined 30 year lives of the FWS proposed general permits.
It could be many more when the endless forest of bird choppers makes avoidance impossible. We really need some research into this horrendous prospect.
The vast majority of these dead birds will be songbirds. It is ironic that the environmental movement first took off with Carson’s “Silent Spring”, which warned about the potential extermination of songbirds. Now that we are rushing headlong into environmental industrialization it appears we have come full circle.
It is time to ask the policy question: How much wind killing do we want? Or put another way, how much is too much?