Remember the reason for U.S. Airways' spectacular emergency plane landing on the Hudson River two years ago now? I'll refresh your memory: a flock of birds was caught in the engines, which then shut down. The same specter of avian carnage looms over the progression of wind turbine installations across the United States and the issue rose to the fore during a conference this week about onshore renewable energy development.
This one falls under the purview of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which is scrambling to assess and address the environmental impact of developing renewable energy technology on public land. The issue under scrutiny right now is the impact of land-based wind turbines on birds and bats. The danger is clear and present: some projects could interfere with bird migratory patterns or they could result in trauma deaths and injuries from the turbine blades. Bats are also a challenge. Bat fatalities have been reported at every major land-based wind turbine farm, for reasons that scientists are still struggling to determine.
To address this issue, the federal government has drawn up draft guidelines for steering how birds, bats and other wildlife should be considered when a utility-scale or community-scale wind project is being planned. These guidelines are voluntary right now. Here's an excerpt from the draft, which describes the environmental threat:
"The Service recommends that developers carefully investigate sites at the landscape as well as local scale to determine whether there is a risk of direct or indirect effects to species and their habitats. Direct effects include blade strikes, barotrauma, loss of habitat, and 'displacement'. Indirect effects occur later in time and include introduction of invasive vegetation that result in alteration of fire cycles; increase in predators or predation pressure; decreased survival or reproduction of the species; and decreased use of the habitat that may result from effects of the project or resulting 'habitat fragmentation'."
The voluntary nature of the guidelines has irked some environmental groups such as the American Bird Conservancy. That's because in 2010, the Department of the Interior approved nine commercial-scale energy initiatives on public lands that could product almost 4,000 megawatts of energy. Those projects will create a lot of new jobs, but no one really knows what environmental impact they will have.
This is one of the biggest dilemmas that green-tech advocates will face as renewable energy projects become more commonplace. I've already talked to several large companies that were considering wind as part of their green power portfolios but opted against the technology because the environmental impact on the associated land was too uncertain. Expect this debate to intensify.