Wind Power: Must the Choice Be Clean Energy or Wildlife?

Candice Gaukel Andrews June 16, 2015 27

There’s a dark side to wind power: while it keeps tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, it harms substantial numbers of wildlife. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

To help meet our growing energy needs, in recent years we have increasingly turned to wind power. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2014, 4.4 percent of the electricity we generated came from wind.

However, the wind industry is set to expand exponentially from the current 60,000 megawatts of capacity to 300,000 by 2030. Some estimates indicate that this growth will avoid putting 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, a reduction critical to mitigating the effects of rapid climate change.

This good news, however, comes at a price. A study just published in the June 2015 Journal of Applied Ecology demonstrated that half of the harbor seals being observed near a wind farm that was under construction were exposed to pile-driving noise levels that exceeded auditory damage thresholds for pinnipeds.

In a battle between good vs. good—clean energy vs. healthy populations of wildlife—how do we choose?

Seal hearing loss

Between 1997 and 2012, wind farms killed at least 85 golden and bald eagles. ©Eric Rock

Between 1997 and 2012, wind farms killed at least 85 golden and bald eagles. ©Eric Rock

The damage that wind farms can do to bird populations has long been known. In 2013, an article published in the Journal of Raptor Research reported that from 1997 to 2012, turbines on wind farms in 10 states killed at least 85 bald and golden eagles—a number researchers say is most likely an underestimate because of the lack of rigorous monitoring and mortality reporting. Conservationists worry that even a small number of golden eagle fatalities could be a significant problem, since their population numbers are not well known.

In the brand-new, June 2015 study, researchers from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews glued tracking tags to the backs of 24 harbor seals at haul-out sites near a wind farm that was under construction, located about five miles off the southeast coast of England.

From January to mid-May 2012, while workers installed 31 steel pilings for the turbine foundations, the researchers tracked the seals’ movements. The tags provided each seal’s location every 15 minutes and the depths of their dives. They then combined that data with the location, time and force of nearly 78,000, individual pile-driving blows, which produce a pulse of underwater sound as loud as 250 decibels every one to two seconds.

The study’s results showed that all of the seals were exposed to noise levels thought sufficient to cause temporary hearing impairment. Twelve of the 24 seals were subject to noise levels above the threshold for permanent hearing damage at least once and, in some cases, up to nine times during the study period. Since underwater hearing in seals likely plays a big role in helping them avoid predators, find and compete for mates, and follow the movements of prey species, such exposure is meaningful in relation to their chances for survival.

Clean energy fixes

The modern era of wind energy began in California in the 1980s. Due to the high cost of fossil fuels, a moratorium on nuclear power and an awareness about environmental concerns, the state provided tax incentives to promote wind power. Additional federal tax incentives motivated small companies and entrepreneurs in the state to install 15,000, medium-size turbines, providing enough power to meet the residential needs of a city the size of San Francisco. After the tax credits expired in 1986, wind power continued to grow, although more slowly.

Can we mange to avoid harm to seals while controlling CO2 emissions? ©Justin R. Gibson

Can we mange to avoid harm to seals while controlling CO2 emissions? ©Justin R. Gibson

Today, however, several thousand new wind turbines are proposed for installation off the coast of Europe—many of them in seal habitat. Luckily, as the wind industry matures, better siting and technological improvements should contribute to reducing impacts on wildlife. Some potential solutions put forward are to build wind farms only near cities and to use existing transmission lines and roads; to locate them only in areas with little wildlife habitat value, such as abandoned agriculture areas, already degraded lands or former industrial sites; and to incorporate measures that protect or restore similar habitat and ecosystems to compensate for any unavoidable wildlife ramifications.

Technological developments to help offset the impacts of wind installations include radar systems that can detect approaching birds—causing turbines to automatically turn off—and fiber shrouds that would allow birds and bats to see the entire rotor display, protecting them from the spinning blades.

Environmentalists vs. environmentalists

If this were merely a case of environmentalists against big energy, things would be simpler. Whether it’s eagles dying from wind farms on land or seals losing their hearing from wind turbines at sea, even clean energy has environmental impacts. As some have expressed it, “it makes no difference to a sage grouse if its habitat is destroyed by an oil derrick or a wind turbine.”

With only 50 parts per million of greenhouse gases now standing between us and disaster, fast-tracking clean energy makes sense. But whether we can simultaneously achieve clean energy goals and preserve species remains to be seen.

Do you think that rapid climate change is a bigger threat than species loss? Can we deal with one and safeguard the other?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Russell Higgins July 5, 2015 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    I ran across a reference pressure differences and darkness within ducts encouraging birds that got in, to fly out, something to do with “calla lily” shaped air intakes. You’d need intakes even bigger than the prop spans of wind gens (to overcome pressure loss and friction), but benefit from smaller actual turbines with easier maint. being closer to the ground. Admittedly, this was in a sci-fi book “Diamond Age or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”, but it’s surprising how many of these authors research their work.

  2. Tom Harley July 5, 2015 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Wind turbines can be devastating for the environment, not just in their manufacture using rare earth metals. Bee colony collapse appears to be in greater proportions in the vicinity of turbine farms:

  3. David Gross July 5, 2015 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Wind is still much less harmful on wildlife than using fossil fuels.

  4. Russell Donnelly July 5, 2015 at 4:37 pm - Reply

    Hello, to utilize wind power efficiently we have to go back to our drawing boards and shelve the “pinwheel” design. Rotary blade turbines with frictionless bearings and lightweight super tensile strength construction that are contained in mesh covers with directional variability which can efficiently “catch a breeze” from any direction would seem to be a starting step in the right direction for future power initiatives. Just an observational thought !!!! 🙂 Vegematic shredder wind power should be archived as obsolete. Too heavy ! Too slow ! Low efficiency ! Wind power – excellent alternative energy idea !

  5. Ramakrishna Venkatasamy July 5, 2015 at 4:36 pm - Reply

    No blades and no noise will certainly be the acceptable version, and I am sure the systems can be further improved upon to increase efficiency.

  6. George Fenwick June 26, 2015 at 2:17 pm - Reply

    Two kinds of people confuse the public by saying there is a choice to be made between renewable energy and wildlife: the uninformed and those who wish to make a profit on wind energy regardless of cost. There need be no choice. We simply need a rational wind energy policy with safeguards for wildlife. We already know where all the wind turbines we need can be built with minimal harm to wildlife, but profiteers want no limits at all – so they try to divide conservationists. We shouldn’t fall for it.

  7. Brian Rutledge June 23, 2015 at 5:27 pm - Reply
  8. Michelle Palmer June 22, 2015 at 8:53 am - Reply

    For the study to be truly relevant, the study should have studied noise during construction and during regular operation. It is already well known that the turbines make noise. A whole group makes more noise than a single turbine. Also, construction is relatively finite. The wind farm could conceivably operate for decades, so the noise created by the turbines during normal operation may be more important over the long term.

  9. Augustine V2020 Ezealor June 19, 2015 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    Why can’t we simply devise widely acceptable means of bringing the rapid growth of human population under control? That way, the demand for more electricity may be achieved and the need to disturb prime wildlife habitats in the search for more energy may be curbed.

  10. Carl Knauer June 19, 2015 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    The current design is the most efficient design for harnessing wind for power. The fact that wind power is not economically competitive with other forms of power generation, any design change which may be safe for wildlife will likely be less efficient in producing power, therefore even less competitive.

  11. Andrew Wyatt June 19, 2015 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    Wind turbines kill thousands of birds, including many endangered species. US Fish & Wildlife Service is granting 30 year exemptions from ESA so that wind farms can get around the unavoidable high endangered bird mortalities out west.

  12. William (Will) M. Musser IV June 18, 2015 at 3:12 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing. I had never heard about the negative effects on seals to date. Difficult issues indeed, but it’s important to bring them out into the open for discussion….

    Here are some links for additional articles that touch on the issues as they pertain to birds:



  13. Jalal Shoaib June 18, 2015 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    need appropriate technology to tap.

  14. Brian A. Rutledge June 18, 2015 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    We need to insist on federal investment in technological improvements that break us away from open fast moving blades. Two corporations control the production of the present technology and are resisting the development of less destructive technology. We are investing in siting dangerous structures and not in producing a safe approach.

  15. Michael de Swardt June 18, 2015 at 4:57 am - Reply

    A new wind generator has recently been developed in one of the South American countries. It looks like a tube which funnels wind and produces more energy, per size ratio, than the conventional rotor system. It is much smaller, less expensive and does not harm birds nor other wildlife. The developers are in the process of patenting it and convincing governments to accept and promote the new system. You could possible try to view it on youtube.

  16. Mark Stratman June 18, 2015 at 4:56 am - Reply

    Individual wind turbines do not damage hearing of any creature. Many of us live off-grid, and operate quiet wind turbines (2kw, etc), in concert with solar power systems. These meet the needs of small groups and individual families, and they hurt nothing. When we try to centralize power for mass use, and set up “grids”, then there can be damage and physical trade-offs due to the sheer scale of a project. People who are connected to a grid, I would argue, do not completely understand the need to conserve because they are many steps removed from the basis of a power system.

  17. Penelope Worthington June 18, 2015 at 4:55 am - Reply

    Since the study on noise levels and seals was done during the construction phase, I would like to suggest that it might be the construction techniques rather than the wind energy that is the problem.

  18. Karin June 18, 2015 at 12:27 am - Reply

    The new form of windenergy is placed on land. Not the ‘oldfashion’ windmills but on the roofs of buildings. This Ridge blades are almost noisless, don’t damage wildlife of disturbing the flightroute of birds, butterflies or any other flying species. So the techno products improve everyday and provides us in clean energy and a healthy environment for all living beings.

  19. Ke Chung Kim June 17, 2015 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    It is already too late to ask such antithetical question – it is the 21st Century following the blind-eyed Technological Century that made 7.3+ billion people and climate change. There must be a rational balance for protection of biodiversity with alteration or moving them to little higher ground for wind power that is the man-made techno-products that can easily be replaced but not biodiversity itself.

  20. Thomas Nesler June 17, 2015 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    Most likely the answer is “yes.”

  21. Patrick Farrar June 17, 2015 at 6:40 pm - Reply

    That is a good question that is difficult question to answer. Construction impacts are hard to mitigate for, or even pre-plan for when we’re not sure what all of the impacts might be. I’m optimistic that we can do better mitigating impacts if we study and monitor during construction. Of course, deciding what is an acceptable impact is not always simple.
    Perhaps technological evolution can help us reduce our impacts…a blade less wind turbine is being developed by Spanish engineers.–3#/story

  22. Don Reinhardt June 17, 2015 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    An interesting alternative to fan type wind generators are tubular straight up units. I am a manager on the Board of Island Managers of Burlington City N.J., we manage our 400 acre natural island in the middle of the Delaware River. We are the oldest educational charter still in operation in the entire U.S.A. est. 1682. We have no electricity and will be going totally green with solar and a homemade experimental unit. It will be made out of welded together 55 gallon barrels on top of each other on a shaft and each barrel has fin cut in to the metal side creating a tall thin squirrel cage blower/generator. Install center bearings, add a side rub bike type dynamo and your waiting now for wind. What makes this friendly is a few things, its recycled scrap, you can cage it with chicken wire and spray paint it forest colors. Great educational project and it works.

  23. Wynand Vlok June 17, 2015 at 9:14 am - Reply

    It is a “catch 22 situation”. We are for for the clean energy. We must remember that development result in changes. In this case, one can select areas as far as possible from sensitive colonies of seals (and other animals) to get a balance. There is no simple answer or solution!

  24. Karen Schneller-McDonald June 17, 2015 at 9:13 am - Reply

    We really need to be committed to achieving both clean energy and wildlife protection: it is a matter of will and political pressure. Wildlife protection is almost never a priority, and is seldom even a serious consideration. Re: wind energy, improved design and technology and better siting are already viable options for reducing damage to wildlife– but we are not demanding that they be put into practice. Wind energy development details are too often directed by the same corporate interests that bring us oil, gas, and coal — motivated solely by the financial bottom line and not subject to effective regulations. It’s time for clean energy advocates and wildlife protection advocates to realize they need to work together– and stop working at cross purposes!– to effectively counter corporate interests. Again: I believe we can accomplish clean energy development without decimating wildlife– and in fact we have a responsibility to do so.

  25. Ramakrishna Venkatasamy June 17, 2015 at 4:51 am - Reply

    Some technologies, including wind turbines, are just too new, and will need the necessary modifications/tuning up to fit within the requirements of others that will have to share the space. I am sure interference with wildlife was not carefully considered, and now is the time for the necessary modifications to come in.

  26. Dana McCreary June 17, 2015 at 4:49 am - Reply

    I agree. However, where are the environmentalists when these intiatives are being born? Perhaps the roles need to change from adversarial to that of partnerships in consult and concert for progress. I rarely hear the two working cooperatively in this space. With the assumption that this role does not exist already: This requires a deep investment and change in environmentalist span of knowledge (business) and communication. It would be a niche subprofession, but so worth it.

  27. Dr. Jalil S.M. June 17, 2015 at 4:48 am - Reply

    We need both but not one at the cost of other. Further research back up may find some way out. A device may be developed under an available wide horizon.

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