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Win-Win for Wind and Wildlife

By Douglas Vaira

In an ideal world, clean, renewable energy would spout forth like so much syrup from a maple tree, effortlessly and gracefully powering our automobiles and homes.

In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as toxic emissions or global warming. Carbon footprints? Not on this planet.

But, unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, our world demands a near-constant surge to recharge our cell phones, keep our computers humming and fill our gas tanks.

So, where does this leave us?

For one thing, it means we’re going to have to look much more seriously at renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. And we’ll need to do a better job of avoiding and mitigating impacts from traditional energy sources.

“There’s no form of energy that doesn’t have an impact on our planet,” says Joe Kiesecker, a lead scientist with The Nature Conservancy. “It just depends on the impact.”

For traditional fossil fuels, the impact is CO2 emissions and pollution. And while renewable sources are a cleaner alternative, they present a different set of challenges given the amount of land used to produce the power we need.

“Wind and solar farms, for example, can have severe impacts on wildlife and their habitats,” explains Kiesecker.

But there is a way to help balance our growing energy needs with those of nature, and begin to gain energy independence in the process.

Kiesecker and his colleagues have developed a science-based planning approach called Development by Design (DbD) and are testing it with a number of oil, gas and renewable energy pilot projects around the world.

Development by Design evaluates threats and impacts at regional and site levels, explains Kiesecker, and allows the Conservancy to offer solutions for developers, government policy-makers and regulators that avoid and minimize harm to critical habitats and mitigate or offset impacts.

A Win for Wind

The Conservancy is further testing the science of this framework in “Win-Win for Wind and Wildlife: A Vision to Facilitate Sustainable Development," a new study published in the scientific journal PLoS One. Authored by Conservancy Scientists Kiesecker, Fargione and Evans, in addition to a handful of others, the ‘Win-Win for Wind’ report could serve as a road-map for renewable energy development.

The paper outlines a common-sense approach to energy independence by recommending siting wind energy in areas across the United States already impacted by human activities — like agriculture or oil and gas development.

In these areas, says Kiesecker, wind development would likely have few additional impacts on natural areas and wildlife.

“We looked broadly across the United States at how much wind is available in lands that don’t have biodiversity issues” says Kiesecker. “The ‘Win-Win for Wind’ report lays out the where of wind energy development.”

David Naugle, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Montana and a contributor to the ‘Win-Win for Wind’ report, agrees.

“Renewable energy is not a question of if, but where,” says Naugle. “A piecemeal approach won’t work — siting is a question of cumulative impact to wildlife populations. It’s a matter of scale. It’s not an individual turbine or road.”

The study considers onshore wind energy development, which is projected to expand extensively in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West. The Department of Energy’s (DoE) goal to develop 20 percent of the nation’s energy from renewable sources by 2030 translates into 12 million acres of land and 11,000 miles of additional transmission lines.

In scientific terms, that 20 percent equates to 241 gigawatts of wind energy — enough to power 64 million homes across the U.S. And all of it, says Kiesecker, can be achieved in places already impacted by human activities.

Looking at the Department of Energy’s vision, says Kiesecker, there are a number of states where energy development may be more likely to create conflicts with wildlife because there aren’t enough disturbed lands to meet their goals. In these cases, additional effort will be required to identify the least sensitive lands for wildlife.

For example, in the Mid-Atlantic states, viable sites for onshore wind energy are largely restricted to ridge tops, which often make up the heart of the last remaining intact natural ecosystems. This can be a huge problem for area wildlife and species migrating through annually.   

According to Joe Fargione, lead scientist for the Conservancy’s North America region, “Some turbines placed on ridge tops in the Appalachian Mountains, for example, have caused surprising amounts of mortality to migrating bats.”

Disturbingly, Fargione says, bats seem to be attracted to turbines, and when they get too close to spinning blades, the pressure drop can cause their lungs to burst—similar to what happens to scuba divers who surface too quickly.

And, in the western United States, siting issues are adding pressure to already-declining species like the sage grouse and prairie chicken. Fargione says, “Wind turbines placed in the last remaining intact habitat for these ground nesting birds could be a big problem because they won’t nest up to a mile away from these tall, noisy structures.”

Conservationists and the wind industry alike are looking for solutions to these problems, in order to facilitate the expansion of clean renewable energy without compromising goals for healthy wildlife populations.

“Development decisions are usually made piecemeal,” says Naugle. “But now, just as wind is gearing up, The Nature Conservancy has provided us with a blueprint on how to [develop wind energy] and avoid impact at the same time.

Douglas Vaira is a freelance writer based in Charles Town, W. Va.

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