Institute Studies Clash Between Wind and Raptors

A new group is attempting to better reconcile high velocity wind power development with its impact on avian victims.

Wind power has come a long way from technology employed earlier this century, but according to Dr. Judd Howell of the American Wind and Wildlife Institute, more research is needed

Recently named the first Director of Research at the AWWI, Howell's background is a combination of wind energy impacts and raptor studies, which culminated in extensive work in the Altiplan.

Raptors, as birds of prey and top predators, are fewer in number than other species and could be threatened by any excessive damage to their numbers.

"Birds fly into things." said Howell, "As human development has continued, buildings, automobiles and power lines have presented a similar threat."

Often cited is the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in California, one of the oldest American wind farms and largest in the world, and a location that has resulted in the annual deaths (according to a 2005 report) of 1,870 and 4,310 birds of 31 species.

However, the primary issue with Altamont Pass, as emphasized by Howell, was the lack of planning. Spurred on by the 1970s energy crisis, the small turbines, rather than the larger ones used primarily today, wreaked havoc on raptors hunting for their prey.

Howell says it's important to keep in mind, that the Altamont Pass was a test area, an "experimental site where people were doing proofs of technology with a number of different types of turbines." The impact in the area drove home Howell's emphasis on site inspection and preconstruction guidelines, which "states are working diligently on," while compiling national efforts.

The danger that wind energy poses to birds has been contentious at best, having been characterized as minor by reports, such asone released two years ago where it was estimated that it would take over 30 turbines to reach an annual mortality rate of one bird; though the study also acknowledged that rates vary greatly by site.

What efforts are being made to curb the threat posed not only to birds, but more recently noted, to bats? Iberdrola Renewables last year conducted an experiment where designated wind turbines would shut off during low wind-speed nights. The first U.S. based effort of its kind, it reduced bat mortality by 53 to 87 percent. Airports, for example, use noisemakers and other devices to some effectiveness, but birds habituate to noise fairly easily, Howell explained. He continued to say that another technique attempted was the painting of turbine blades, however it had "yet to be implemented on any large scale."

Painting of blades has been not conducted often, though he was involved in a "Visual experiment to reduce avian mortality related to wind turbine operations." In the 2002 Permitting of Wind Energy Facilities Handbook, Howell's study and two others released in 2001 by McIsaac and Hodos et al covered birds sensory physiology, such as observing bird reactions to turbines in terms of speed and distance as well as painting different color patterns on blades.

Selecting a wind turbine site is one of the most important factors in avoiding avian collisions, according to Howell. However, visual deterrents, "if... effective, may be another item in the toolkit."

The AWWI presents a unique junction for new milestones to be passed "where conservation groups, industry and non-governmental organizations have come together to answer difficult research questions and to help the industry be proactive in dealing with this particular issue," Howell said. He added that with the renewable energy challenges of the time, there is an opportunity to develop new infrastructure while remaining conscious of wildlife conservation.

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