Wind is touted as an endlessly renewable, “green-energy” step toward reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. That potential may yet be realized – but only after we resolve well-documented threats to wildlife. An energy source simply cannot be “green” if it kills thousands upon thousands of bats.
Many misleading claims are being made for wind energy, and concerns are rising among conservationists and biologists. The National Academy of Sciences, as well as The Wildlife Society, is initiating a technical review of the impacts of wind farms on wildlife. Most leading environmental and conservation organizations have supported wind-energy development. But some are now reassessing their positions because of mounting evidence of bat and bird kills and the dearth of scientifically credible evidence to support responsible development.
Because there is no legal protection for most bats, they have been virtually ignored in early wind-energy planning. As of November 2004, only 12 of more than 200 U.S. turbine facilities (with a nationwide total of some 16,000 turbines) had been examined for bat kills – and only six of those attempted to estimate total bat mortality. Most mortality searches were conducted at 7- to 28-day intervals and did not adequately account for dead bats that were removed by scavengers or missed by searchers working amid dense vegetation.
In Texas, more than 1,400 turbines have been built without any assessment of bat kills – and the absence of reported mortality has been presented by wind-power proponents as proof that turbines pose little or no threat. And still more wind turbines are being proposed at an alarming pace, particularly with the recent extension of federal tax incentives for wind development. The U.S. Government Accountability Office says more than 62,000 additional turbines would be needed by 2020 to meet Department of Energy goals for wind energy.
At least 300 new turbines are proposed or under construction in Texas, with several more projects under review. Wind energy is moving from private property onto public lands, as well: 500 megawatts of wind power already are installed on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. The BLM has authorized 88 new applications for wind-energy development and has another 68 pending. Applications also have been submitted to the U.S. Forest Service.
If the approximately 900 turbines currently proposed for wooded ridge tops within a 70-mile radius of our study sites in Pennsylvania and West Virginia are built, those turbines alone could kill more than 50,000 bats a year. Given bats’ low reproductive rates, kills of such magnitude could put entire species at risk.
To prevent an environmental crisis, it is essential that local authorities require wind-energy companies to resolve wildlife concerns during the permitting process. We believe that wind energy can be compatible with bat conservation, but only if clear, well-researched safeguards are enacted. We strongly encourage research and development of efficient, wildlife-safe wind technology. But we cannot support the current rush to development without first finding solutions to prevent bat kills that could have devastating cumulative impacts across North America.
It is imperative that those of us committed to maintaining healthy ecosystems make our voices heard. Some of America’s largest, most ecologically and economically important bat populations could be reduced to endangered status, or even eliminated, if we do not act now.
And, as always, we urge that greater energy conservation – by far our most powerful tool available for dealing with worldwide energy shortages – be encouraged and implemented much more aggressively throughout society. You can make a difference by sharing your concerns in your community and with conservation organizations you support. Contact local companies, permitting officials and state and federal legislators to insist that wildlife problems are not ignored in new wind-energy projects.
We must not rush into an energy source that is not yet green, but could be.
BCI members can read the whole story of wind energy’s threat to bats around the United States in the Fall issue of BATS magazine.