Is Wind Power Dangerous?
Recently, Green America posted an action to our website, encouraging members of the public to ask Congress to extend the Production Tax Credit (PTC), a program which has helped wind power rapidly grow in the United States. Several people wrote to us, questioning whether we should be promoting wind power due to its impacts on birds, forests, and humans. We have looked into the impacts of wind power versus other sources of energy through the years, and repeatedly found that wind power has far lower environmental impacts than traditional sources of energy (fossil fuels and nuclear power), and that the impacts of wind power continue to decline, as turbine designs improve, and the turbines are better situated. Here’s what we’ve found:
Bird fatalities: While, wind turbines do cause bird fatalities, these are lower than fatalities caused by other human activities. The rates of fatalities caused by turbines vary greatly across the country, and can be related to the relative abundance of species, as well as the type of turbines in use and how they are sited. However, it is important to note that the impacts of wind turbines on birds are often overstated, and are much lower than fatalities caused by other human activities.
A 2007 report from the National Academies of Science found that bird fatalities from wind power are much lower than from other anthropogenic sources, and found that turbines have little or no impact on bird populations overall. By contrast, feral cats (and house cats let outdoors) kill millions or even billions of birds per year. Collisions with building and other structures also cause millions of bird deaths per year, as does poisoning from chemicals and fertilizers. The various anthropogenic causes of bird deaths are clearly compared to each other on the Sibley Guides website, which demonstrates that wind turbines are amongst the lowest causes of bird mortality.
It is very important to understand that bird deaths caused by coal and gas power generating facilities are higher absolutely and per megawatt than bird deaths from wind.
Since the National Academies of Science study was published, wind turbine designs continue to improve, further reducing the likelihood of negative impacts on birds. The wind industry is also working collaboratively through the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative to assess the risks of wind turbines to wildlife, and to create solutions to reduce fatalities. It turns out that bird flight, especially migratory bird flight, is very predictable, and by collaborating with bird experts about where to site wind turbines, wind builders have been able to dramatically reduce bird death. Similar efforts are underway to understand the impact of wind turbines on bats, and to reduce fatalities.
By contrast, fossil fuel sources are estimated to produce ten times the number of bird fatalities as wind power per unit of power generated. In light of the relatively low impacts of wind power on birds as compared to other anthropogenic factors, and in light of the measures the wind power industry is taking to reduce those impacts, singling out wind power for its impacts on species, while ignoring the greater causes of species losses, makes little sense.
In short, if you care about saving birds and still use electricity, the best strategy is to work to close coal, gas and nuclear power plants, and encourage greater use of wind and other renewable energy sources.
Forest clearings: Most wind farms are situated on land that has already been cleared. However, in some locations, the installation of wind energy farms can result in deforestation, including on mountain tops (including in the Mid-Atlantic region). Locating wind turbines in forested areas can also cause bat fatalities in migrating species, although the number of bat fatalities from wind power is vastly lower than from habitat destruction, pesticides and white-nose syndrome.
It is noteworthy that environmental activists in these regions actually advocate for wind farms on mountain tops, because their environmental impacts are quite obviously less than those of mountain top removal coal mining (which completely destroys the forest and much of the mountain beneath it, and creates massive water pollution), and because wind energy produces greater economic benefits for the region as compared to mountaintop removal coal mining. In addition, increases in technology have made it possible to install wind turbines in forests while leaving much of the tree cover in place, and mitigating impacts on species. Germany, a leader in wind technology, has demonstrated that wind turbines can be situated in forests with minimal impacts.
Here too, when it comes to forests and their inhabitants, wind is a significant improvement over coal when it comes to the water and air pollution, the climate, and economic benefits.
Impacts on humans: For the most part, the impacts of wind farms on humans arise from noise and aesthetics. Both impacts have been lessened by modern technologies that require fewer turbines spinning at slower rates of speed. Of course, any impacts of wind power on humans has to be compared to that power from coal, gas or nuclear.
When it comes to coal-fired power, the Clean Air Task Force estimates that coal causes over 13,000 premature deaths per year in the United States, just from coal combustion. Full Cost Accounting for the Lifecycle of Coal, a study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, found that coal costs the U.S. an estimated $300 billion to over $500 billion per year in health and environmental costs.
Of course, there is also increasing concern regarding the impacts of natural gas fracking nationwide (including impacts on drinking water), and Fukushima reminds us of the potential for disaster from nuclear power.
Wind power’s human health impacts are negligible by contrast. When looking at climate change emissions alone, wind power is a clear winner, with a vastly lower rate of emissions as compared to fossil fuels and even nuclear power (there are some small emissions generated from the construction and installation of wind facilities). As the impacts of climate change increasingly devastate human communities, the importance of wind power will only grow.
Of course, there is no source of energy that produces absolutely no environmental risks or impacts, which is why the best environmental action is to reduce energy use through energy efficiency. However, for the electricity we still use, wind power clearly has much lower impacts than the primary sources of electricity in use today. Wind power relies on a renewable resource to make energy, and it clearly makes sense to lessen the already low environmental impacts of renewable energy sources rather than rely on energy from fossil fuels, which can never be clean or environmental sound. That’s why Green America supports wind, and other renewable energy technologies, to meet our electricity needs, and that’s why Green America supports renewal of the PTC.