Above: Image © istockphoto.com/arturoli

Wind energy is one of the fastest growing sources of electricity around the globe. In 2012, wind energy grew by 20% in Canada and it is now used by electric utilities in every Canadian province! Wind power cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions. It also creates a more flexible supply of electricity. This gives power companies the ability to pull more or less energy from different sources when they need to.

However, there are environmental problems linked to wind energy. Wind energy projects often affect local wildlife. Researchers are working hard to reduce or resolve some of the negative impacts.

Did you know? The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative is dedicated to understanding of the effect of wind turbines on bats and to discovering new ways of reducing turbine-related bat deaths.

Wind energy does generate clean electricity without releasing harmful pollutants from fossil fuels. But wind turbines have been linked to large numbers of bird and bat deaths. In the case of birds, most of the deaths happen when the  birds crash into the turbines. In the case of bats, some deaths occur when they hit the turbines.  In other cases it is caused by an effect called barotrauma. This happens when bats fly too close to the blades of a wind turbine. The movement of the blades can cause a drop in air pressure nearby. This drop in pressure can damage the bat's lungs, often resulting in death.

Studies in Ontario found that each individual wind turbine kills an average of 2.5 birds each year. Bat deaths are thought to be between 4 and 14 per turbine per year. These deaths can add up very quickly when you consider the growing number of wind farms being built around the world. For example, with more than 6,700 turbines in Ontario, over 16,000 birds and between 26,000 and 93,000 bats are killed each year in that province alone.

In addition to causing deaths, wind farms have also been linked to harmful indirect impacts on local bird and bat populations. Indirect impacts are not well understood and are very hard to study. They include problems caused by building roads, the turbines, and related infrastructure. They also include habitat loss, which can lead to wildlife being forced out of the area. Other indirect impacts include effects on mating patterns, and other behavioural changes. Any of these can contribute to major population decline in different species.

Did you know? As new wind energy projects are developed and more electricity generated from wind is added to the power grid, overall carbon emissions can be reduced.

The wind power industry is aware of the impact that wind turbines have on bird and bat populations. Developers are required to follow a number of government rules and regulations when designing their projects. These rules help control where wind turbines are placed and how they are built. They also control how wind farms operate. The likely impacts on migration routes, habitats, and local species are also considered.

Developers, as well as government agencies, also monitor the ongoing impacts of wind projects. The information gathered in this way can help reduce the risks future projects may have by providing a better understanding of how wind turbines affect biodiversity.

Also, organizations such as the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative and the US Fish and Wildlife Services work to develop new ways to prevent deaths. These include ways to lower the sounds produced. They also include developing new research methods. For example, biologists have shown that bats are much more active when wind speeds are low. If wind turbines were kept motionless in low winds, a significant number of bat deaths could be avoided with only a small impact on power production.

Compared to other threats, the worldwide impact of wind projects on bird populations is still very small. Many studies show that about 95% of all bird deaths are caused either by cats or when they crash into windows, vehicles, and transmission lines. Research into the number and causes of bat deaths is ongoing.

Wind power is becoming an important source of energy for Canadians. However, like most other human activities, wind projects also have negative impacts on the natural environment.. Government, industry, and environmental groups are all working to ensure that our flying friends are protected as much as possible.

This article was updated by CurioCity staff on 2017-09-12.

References

General information

Anti-wind power publications

Pro-wind power and industry publications

Chantelle Lafleur

Chantelle has a B.Sc in Life Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication. For a short time, she worked with the Let's Talk Science Outreach team at the National Office and loved being able to share her passion with others. Chantelle seeks out any opportunity there is to share cool science with other and she loves learning about new research, medical advancements and environmental issues. 

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