Some laud wind energy as the answer to our fossil fuel addiction. Others vilify wind turbines for killing untold numbers of birds and bats. But what if we could build all the wind energy the United States needs without significant impacts to the country’s wildlife? A new study conducted by The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund might hold the key to making that dream a reality.
Why is this important?
- First, the United States is going to increasingly rely on wind power to help meet its energy needs. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has a goal for the United States to produce 20% of its electricity from wind energy by 2030.
- But wind farms can take a tremendous toll on wildlife. Birds and bats that fly into turbine blades are killed (the tips of spinning blades can exceed 150 miles an hour). And poorly sited wind farms can fragment the last remaining habitat for species that require large blocks of intact habitat. In the Northern Great Plains, this includes sage grouse and prairie chicken, which are adapted to wide open spaces and won’t nest near noisy or tall human contraptions such as roads and turbines.
The study maps areas in the U.S. Northern Great Plains where development for wind energy would likely have low impacts to wildlife. By targeting land that is already disturbed, such as cropland and oil and gas fields, the impact of wind energy on wildlife can be greatly reduced.
Above: Low impact areas for wind development in the Northern Great Plains, as identified in a new study by The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund.
Not all disturbed lands translate into low impact sites for wildlife. For example, cropland that is next to a critical stopover site along the whooping crane migration route is not a good place for a wind farm, even though it is already disturbed land.
So, to identify “low impact areas for wind development,” we started with disturbed lands and then removed all the lands in sensitive wildlife areas. For example, we removed the core breeding areas for sage grouse and areas with high wetland density that support breeding waterfowl and other birds. You can see an interactive web map of the resulting low impact areas for wind development here.
The good news is that, even if wind development was restricted to these low impact areas, there is more than enough room for all the wind energy development that we need. Translating the goal of 20% electricity from wind for the Northern Great Plains, means roughly 12,000 wind turbines by 2030 (enough to power 8 million homes). We identified ~1,056 GW of potential wind energy from low impact areas in the Northern Great Plains. That’s over 35 times the DOE’s development goals. That means there is plenty of room for wind energy without developing remaining wildlife habitat. This type of smart development for wind energy is the same approach that we’ve been advocating for all kinds of development: we’re working to avoid, minimize, restore, and offset impacts from development around the world.
Unfortunately, most proposed wind development (70%) is outside of the low impact areas that we have identified. New incentives are needed for developers and utilities to move forward with the projects that guarantee a future with both clean energy and abundant wildlife.