How we can live with turbines without wrecking the wilderness

By Anne Bell

Nature conservationists and green-energy advocates, so often allies in the battle to preserve the natural world, are finding themselves in opposition to each other on an increasingly important issue: the spread of wind farms across the province and their deadly impact on birds and bats. As the controversy heats up, more and more frequently people ask me about Ontario Nature’s position. Our organization strongly supports the production of energy from clean, renewable sources such as wind. But the location of wind turbines is a key concern for us. These projects need to be sited, configured and operated to minimize their negative effect on wildlife – to keep the green in green energy.

This seemingly reasonable position places Ontario Nature squarely in the crossfire of both those who passionately support and those who vehemently oppose wind farm development. How can this be? Is there no common ground?

I believe there is, but we’ll have a hard time finding it unless we’re willing to examine the facts from different angles. A case in point is the Wolfe Island wind farm near Kingston, where 86 turbines began producing electricity last year. From July to December, the turbines killed 602 birds and 1,270 bats. Over those six months, the average number of birds killed per turbine was seven – much higher than the industry average of one to two birds per turbine annually. These fatalities are perhaps not surprising: the project is located in a globally significant Important Bird Area.

How do we make sense of these facts? From a naturalist’s perspective, the numbers are alarming, especially considering Ontario’s efforts to expedite the development of wind power. If we multiply the Wolfe Island deaths by the number of wind farms throughout the province – or, indeed, throughout North America – the potential cumulative impact is nightmarish. It makes it very easy to understand why naturalists are screaming about wind projects being proposed within or next to other Important Bird Areas, such as Point Pelee in Essex County and Ostrander Point in Prince Edward County.

From a green-energy perspective, however, the bird and bat mortality at wind farms pales in comparison to the widespread and devastating consequences of society’s continued reliance on fossil fuels, and even on other forms of renewable energy. A 2009 study by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority compared the risks to wildlife from six types of energy generation: coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro and wind. Based on a life-cycle analysis that considered extraction, transportation, facility construction and decommissioning, and power generation and transmission, wind power stood out prominently as being the most benign.

Another comparative study, published last year in Energy & Environmental Science, took a broader environmental perspective and, in addition to the effect on wildlife, considered carbon dioxide emissions, the footprint area in water or on land, water consumption, and water and thermal pollution. The researchers examined 12 forms of electricity generation, including solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave, tidal and ethanol. Wind outranked all other forms, having the lowest impact overall.

Add to these studies the estimate, published in 2008, that every degree of global warming will lead to the extinction of between 100 and 500 bird species worldwide, and it becomes clear that something must be done, and quickly, about the way we produce and consume energy.

We should begin, of course, with energy conservation. That means recognizing society’s thirst for cheap, bountiful energy as a problem and making conservation the cornerstone of every green-energy plan. But unless we are willing and able to do without electricity altogether, we will need to make choices. If we simply say no to wind farms, we need to recognize that this implies saying yes to other, potentially more harmful forms of energy.

My hope is that naturalists and green-energy advocates will come together to work out more nuanced responses to the choices we face. This means taking the time needed to assess the potential impact of wind farms. We could prohibit development in Important Bird Areas and other significant wildlife habitats and shut down turbines at critical times of the day or during migration, when birds and bats are most vulnerable. But it also means moving forward with a sense of urgency and committing to immediate measures to reduce society’s reliance on fossil fuels. There is no time to waste.

Anne Bell is Ontario Nature’s senior director of conservation and education.