Wind farms are growing in popularity across the country as states, communities, and companies look to clean, renewable energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. But the government hasn’t given these groups sufficient guidance on what environmental factors to consider before planting turbines, according to a report released by the National Research Council.

Congress mandated the report, “Environmental Impacts of Wind-Energy Projects,” which details the environmental consequences of onshore wind projects in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. It looks into impacts of wind farms on carbon dioxide, wildlife, and humans, and also offers guidelines for planning and developing wind farms. 

“The report is the single most complete compilation of information about the environmental impact of wind energy that has been produced,” said Paul Risser, who chaired the committee that wrote the report, at a teleconference today. “The report is very clear in specifying that these projects need to be systematically evaluated in all stages of planning and in the operational stages as well.”

In the United States, wind power projects have grown from being practically nonexistent in 1980 to generating 11,603 megawatts of electricity in 2006—though today they account for less than 1 percent of the total electricity generated in the country. But by 2020, wind energy could represent as much as seven percent of overall energy produced, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.  

To help fulfill that potential, the report recommends that regulatory agencies at different levels adopt an evaluation guide to help streamline the review process for proposed projects.

It also emphasizes the importance of understanding the environmental problems associated with wind energy systems—but in many cases those problems are not yet fully understood. For example, studies have shown that turbine rotors are responsible for the deaths of some birds and bats, which researchers estimate by counting carcasses in the fields below. Some scientists predict that as more wind turbines are installed across the country, more animals will be killed.

But researchers don’t know whether wind farms will kill so many individual animals that the overall populations will suffer, according to the report.

In general, the report has been well received by proponents of wind energy. But one early criticism has been that its scope is not broad enough. Steve Lindenberg, the acting program manager for wind and hydropower technologies for the Department of Energy, doesn’t discount the report, but feels that there is room for improvement.

“[The committee] really has identified that this is not a complete analysis of the nation,” he says. Lindenberg also points out that it does not take into account any future incentives or regulations made by Congress to promote wind energy.

Others have noted that the report examines only one region of the country and doesn’t measure wind farms against other types of energy production.

“We certainly recognize that there are environmental impacts from wind as there are from any energy activity,” says Laurie Jodziewicz, a spokesperson for the American Wind Energy Association, “but this is a report comparing wind to nothing.”

Although the report does not address how wind energy compares to coal-fired power plants, natural gas, or solar power, it does calculate the amount of carbon dioxide that wind power systems will offset. In 2005, electricity was responsible for 39 percent of the carbon dioxide sent into the atmosphere. By 2020, the report estimates that wind energy will offset about 4.5 percent of those emissions.

The committee emphasizes that this report is a small step toward a greater understanding of the environmental impacts of wind farms.

Members say that more studies are needed to fully explain the environmental effects of turbines and the factors groups should consider before installing them.

The American Wind Energy Association, for one, would like to see a more comprehensive report that compares wind to other technologies. But for now, says Jodziewicz, “wind is still one of the most environmentally friendly sources of energy.”

Story by Susan Cosier. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

See also:

Wind energy