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July 25, 2012 / Todd Larsen

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.

19 Comments

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  1. John Chrystal / Aug 7 2012 9:26 am

    Your statement that wind turbines kill less birds than does cars, power lines etc., is like saying you can cut off the remaining arm of a one armed man because he his already missing one. There are plenty of places that wind energy can be generated without killing thousands of birds and bats, don’t fall for Big Winds hype. Thousands of small local installations and a commitment to efficiency and conservation would be way more cost effective and environmentally sound to create electricity then a few huge turbine farms placed in environmentally sensitive areas. In addition, maybe if you study ALL the information about the efficiency, environmental effects, human health effects and return for your dollar other than what the wind lobbyists hand out, you would come to a different conclusion as I have, about wind energy.

    • W Bryce / Aug 7 2012 6:42 pm

      John, I think you have been drinking to much environmental cool aid! Windpower is cost effective and safe, but people like you dont want any type of generation. Nothing is clean and safe enough for you. Im sure that your power does not come from a source that you generate. The computer your using to surf the web to the lights and heating and cooling of your home, all use energy! Unless we find a better way to produce this power, wind will be a better source hands down! So promote your anti wind agenda and have the coal and nuclear industry move forward and kill more than birds. That will be on your hands and others like you. In Montana wind wind blows clean and clear, with the turbine suppling power for hundreds of thousands with little impact on anything.

      BTW, I live by my convections as this post is written on a computer powered by small wind and solar, and my heat pump AC has me nice and cool. Put your money where your mouth is and do the same.

    • Jill Simon / Aug 16 2013 12:56 pm

      Hi everybody, this is to John Chrystal and to Todd Larsen, John, I appreciate your concern over birds and bats, but there is a radar system that stops the killing of ANY birds or bats (see http://www.detect-inc.com/wind.htm – and there are other brands as well). And Todd, because of these radar systems, you can spread the word that no one needs to worry about the loss of a single life due to wind turbines – the turbines slow to a stop as the radar detects the bird or bat. –Yes to safe, green, sane energy! (And hi everybody, please write your government officials if you haven’t yet to BAN fracking which poisons the water, land, people and wildlife, Keystone XL pipeline which is “game over” for the climate according to climatologists and scientists, to put an end to nuclear power, which is a disaster waiting to happen, and to dirty, polluting coal – thanks!)

  2. Gene DeJoannis / Aug 7 2012 4:15 pm

    There is another advantage of wind (and solar) power that is not mentioned very often: They don’t require any water to operate. Most other power generation systems use heat to make high pressure steam and run it through a steam turbine to turn the generator. To be economical the steam has to be condensed back to water so it can be reused over and over again. This includes coal, gas, oil or nuclear power plants, and it requires a lot of water.

    Sometimes this cooling process is done with huge cooling towers (like the large curved concrete towers often used to depict a typical fossil fuel plant), rejecting the heat to air. It will surprise many people that these towers require huge amounts of water to carry this waste heat away by evaporation each day. It also requires a great deal of electricity to run the large cooling water pumps, which reduces the plant’s efficiency.

    Because so much water is needed each day with cooling towers, power plants are often built near rivers or oceans so they can get rid of their waste heat from steam condensing into the water stream, which is not without its problems for the plant or the environment. But at least they are not using the relatively expensive potable water supply that people depend on (they still use a lot of electricity to pump the water). However during droughts all of these water sources are constrained, and power plants have had to reduce their power output because of cooling water shortages during prolonged droughts. This is also why it does not make a lot of sense to build large concentrating solar power stations in the desert where cooling water is extremely scarce, because these plants also use the steam power cycle. Some of these planned facilities have been converted to photovoltaic solar farms, which are more suited to the desert environment because no cooling water is required. Wind turbines do not require cooling water either, which further reduces their environmental impact and increases reliability during droughts.

  3. mygreenhosting.com / Aug 7 2012 4:48 pm

    @Gene DeJoannis, that is a good point about the water. I am a big proponent of Geothermal. It uses water, but much less than other power generation systems. Did you know that there is enough available geothermal energy in the USA to provide it with power 2000 times over?

    • Gene DeJoannis / Aug 7 2012 11:02 pm

      @mygreenhosting: I am not sure what you mean by Geothermal power. If you mean a well or series of wells connected to a heat pump that absorbs heat from the ground in winter and puts it back in the summer, I agree that besides the initial fill of the piping, there is no water used at all. If by Geothermal you mean drilling into hot rock formations and forcing water down which comes up as steam and runs a turbine, that steam has to be condensed or all your working fluid will be lost. That means you need a lot of cooling water for either a cooling tower or a large body of water, just like all the other steam cycle processes (nuclear, gas, coal). The good part is you don’t burn fossil fuel and emit CO2, but you still need that water. In the western states where this is often done water is often a scarce commodity.

  4. Jillie Simon / Aug 7 2012 11:55 pm

    For John C. and anyone else who doesn’t already know this – we can have wind energy – clean, green, safe energy- without ANY harm at all to birds or bats – because of avian radar technology.
    -While doing research for a new music video on alternative energy, I found out about DeTect Avian Radar Systems (www.detect-inc.com) – No harm need ever come to a single bird or bat from wind energy! – Every wind farm that has installed any form of avian radar is safe because the radar detects the bird or bat and the turbines turn off. You can see how on their website or in our music video “So Many Ways (For Safe, Green Sane Energy)”
    -http://youtu.be/bcbP7-GkQsk
    Thank you Todd for your blog, and hopefully Green America can inform & reassure people that avian radar means that there needn’t be any amount of casualties from wind power. In solidarity, peace & light!

  5. wind generator / Oct 5 2012 11:13 am

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    I know what you mean, I have a wind-up flashlight with 3 led’s, plus saw a movie on youtube that showed how you are able to make it thus which it charges a iPod. I have everything important, plus all i have to do is solder on two small wires to the generator, however my daddy insists that this really is too risky. He says that the small capacitors are too much of the risk to work with, despite that i wouldn’t be soldering anywhere close to them, besides, they never store the power to energy a flash or anything. My question is merely, do wind-up flashlights pose any risk? I keep suggesting a flashlight is not risky at all, and cannot kill me, however my father thinks otherwise. Thank you to all whom answer.
    I’ll be back to read more next time

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