Q. What's the impact of large wind turbines on bird populations? – Aaron, Penn.

A. In the grand scheme of things, your average wind turbine doesn’t do much damage. Birds are far more likely to bite the dust as a result of other manmade deathtraps like cars, buildings, power lines and communication towers. In fact, a communication tower (depending on size) will cause anywhere from 82 to 3,199 bird fatalities per year. Compare that to your average wind turbine, which causes an average of 2.19 annual bird fatalities. And if you take California out of the national average (according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Golden State houses huge wind sites in raptor paradise territory, thereby skewing the national turbine fatality average), that number goes way down. Actually, with California out of the picture, bird deaths from wind farms would be close to zero. 

Experts fault one particularly large, old wind site in California — the Altamont Pass wind center — for all this talk about wind farms and bird deaths. This mega-wind site, which pumps out nearly 600 megawatts of wind a year, reportedly kills 2 to 5 thousand birds a year. That’s because many of the turbines at Altamont are old, small, and low-to-the-ground, with fast spinning blades. Bird proponents want Altamont to “repower” the site, or replace existing turbines with larger, more powerful models. These new models would mean fewer turbines, spinning more slowly and at higher elevations, and many experts believe they would cut back on bird fatalities.  

If you’re worried about impacts from future wind turbines, rest assured that federal and state environmental reviews are required for all major developments, including large-scale wind.  Regulators and the public (through public comment periods) will have the chance to weigh in long before a shovel hit the dirt.  

Story by Alyssa Kagel. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008