The giant turbines and spinning blades of a wind farm may resemble a scene from a sci-fi thriller, but these farms are quickly becoming part of today’s landscape. In 2011, global wind energy capacity grew by almost 21 percent — and the U.S. now has the ability to power 2 million homes by wind power alone.
The Nature Conservancy in New York supports the responsible, thoughtful development of alternative energy sources like wind and solar, and believes that renewable sources of energy are an essential element of a national strategy to increase energy security while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet the Conservancy also recognizes that these sources are not without their own environmental risks — and should be subject to sound environmental review.
New York Catches the Breeze
New York State’s clean energy goal is to obtain 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015. Much of this new energy will come from wind power.
Despite being known more for rugged peaks than wide-open plains, New York is seeing its fair share of wind farm development. At the end of 2010, 14 wind energy projects were operational across the state with a total of 726 turbines, and at least 30+ wind farms are actively undergoing environmental review today. The Nature Conservancy has a long history of working collaboratively with communities, landowners and industry — including wind farms — in this part of the state.
Balancing Biodiversity and Energy Development
Scientists from The Nature Conservancy and partner organizations are working together on a NYSERDA supported-project to protect New York’s State’s biodiversity heritage while still advancing statewide energy development and policy goals. Using geographic information system (GIS) technology, the project will identify and map important ecological resources, such as sensitive habitats, large forest blocks and migration routes.
The project will also develop a separate set of GIS map layers that will identify advantageous sites for wind energy development. Through a collaborative process involving a range of stakeholders, these maps will be combined with biodiversity maps to identify locations where wind power can be harnessed effectively with minimal impact to the state’s wildlife.
Location is Everything
Like real estate, the most important factor in wind tower placement and development is location. Wind farms – which can span thousands of acres – must be appropriately sited to minimize their impacts on people, species and habitats. If they are not, the surrounding areas can experience significant habitat loss, high bird and bat fatalities, and devastating invasions by non-native plants.
- Bird and Bat Fatality and Displacement: Migratory birds and bats are particularly at risk from wind towers. Researchers estimate that there are currently between 4 and 40 million total migratory bird fatalities per year from wind tower collisions. As the number of towers increases, the number of resulting bird and bat fatalities will also increase, impacting both threatened and common species.
Wind towers can also displace birds from suitable habitat because over time, birds begin to avoid the developments. Concerns about bats are particularly valid in light of the emerging “white nose syndrome” that is affecting bats throughout the Northeast. Any additional sources of mortality, including wind farms, deserve scrutiny given that bat populations are under such dire threat.
- Invasive Species: Invasive plant and animal species cost the U.S. an estimated $137 to $146 billion each year. They reduce water quality, lower property values, decrease productivity of forests, fisheries and agricultural lands, and impair recreation activities. Invasive species are often introduced and spread via existing and newly developed roads. Seeds or plants are transported by motor vehicles and unintentionally dropped along roadsides where they can become established, particularly in areas with bare ground.
A Future for Wind?
The Nature Conservancy expects wind energy to play an important role in reducing carbon emissions and protecting our planet from climate change, and supports public policies that encourage investment in renewable energy sources.
However, accelerating energy changes will have a big impact on the landscapes that we share with nature. Therefore, these changes must be made thoughtfully and responsibly in order to minimize the impacts on habitats, species and people.