Watt’s Happening: Busting the myth “Wind Turbines are Bad for Birds”

Friday, April 5th, 2013

by Don Pettit

I’m starting out this new renewable energy column “Watt’s Happening?” by busting a few common myths around the cleanest energy sources ever invented: wind and solar. Lets jump right into a hotly debated wind turbine controversy: does wind power harm or benefit birds?

Thanks to the extensive environmental assessment and follow-up studies required of wind facilities in Canada, we know that the 34 turbines of Bear Mountain Wind Park near Dawson Creek killed about 160 bats and 85 birds in 2010. Not a nice thing to know if you are both a supporter of clean energy and a bird lover, as I am. But can these numbers be put into perspective so that we can honestly evaluate the impact of wind power on birds and bats, and not just blurt out “Oh! How terrible!”?

I love birds, but I also love cats. Now there’s a serious contradiction indeed! I know from my personal experience that each cat kills at least 2-3 birds per year (probably closer to 10!) no matter how many bells I attach to them or how carefully I try to keep them inside. Let’s be conservative and say 2 birds per cat per year.

My local veterinarian friend estimates that there are about 5000 cats in Dawson Creek. That means cats kill at least 10,000 birds per year in this city. Add in window-kill and road-kill, and the number of needless bird deaths in and around Dawson Creek comes to about 20,000 per year. Surprising, isn’t it?

A recent study by the University of Georgia and National Geographic peg the bird deaths by cats in North America at 500 million per year. Then add in collisions with buildings (especially glass office towers): one billion (yes billion) per year in North America alone.

Habitat loss, though harder to quantify, is probably even more of a killer than cats and glass office towers. Birds and bats are definitely in trouble on this planet, but it’s not because of wind power.

For bat decline, the spread of a deadly virus is now suspected, encouraged by a warming climate, much as the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic was spread by warmer winters in northern latitudes. Unanticipated “cascade effects” are now being seen on all plant and animal species around the world, and things are just getting started. If we want to protect birds and bats, in fact all wildlife, we must slow down and eventually stop climate change.

One of our best bets is a rapid shift to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Once set up and operating they are essentially carbon-free. A complete shift to renewables (and yes, that IS possible: the subject of a future Watt’s Happening column) will eventually slow and then stop climate change.

Wind power has a carbon footprint, certainly. Manufacturing and installation cost carbon. But once up and running, a steady stream of carbon-free electricity quickly compensates for this carbon cost. Remember, we’re not burning anything because WIND is the fuel! Compare that to coal, diesel or gas-fired generators, which never work off their carbon footprints but only add to them.

Averaged over the year, Bear Mountain Wind Park powers most of the South Peace region, and yes it has an environmental impact, but a tiny one. Every megawatt of wind power put in place is one more megawatt of polluting, carbon-belching power we do not need.

No energy source is perfect. They all come with a price attached. Wind power has the smallest carbon and environmental price per watt of any readily available energy source, and wind power helps birds and bats by slowing climate change. Period.

If you want to take personal, direct action that really will save and protect the precious lives of our winged friends – support wind power, and by all means have your cat neutered!

QUICK FACT: Denmark is now generating more than 30 percent of its electricity with wind power, making their grid the most wind-powered in the world. Their goal is 50 percent by 2020. Germany is not far behind.

Don Pettit is a director on the board of Peace Energy Cooperative.

Image caption: Bear Mountain Wind Park powers BC’s first wind-powered city, Dawson Creek, plus most of the South Peace region year-around, combining pollution-free energy with an eight-kilometer hiking trail and beautiful nature park. Maps of the park and how to get there are available at the Peace Energy Cooperative office and Tourism Dawson Creek. (Don Pettit photo)