Slaughtering Species in the Name of “Green Energy”

A wind farm in California at sunset (click for credit)

Nine years ago, I wrote about a study that indicated wind turbines in the U.S. kill more than half a million birds and more than 800,000 bats each year. Five years later, I wrote about another study that indicated wind farms act as apex predators in the ecosystem where they are built. While very little of this important information makes its way into the popular press, it has informed those who actually care about the environment. As a result, more studies have been done, and these studies indicate something rather surprising about two of the “green energy” solutions that have been promoted to “save our planet.”

So far, the most chilling study was published in Royal Society Open Science. The authors of the study collected feathers of dead birds found at selected wind farms and solar energy facilities in California. They found that of the many species killed by these “green energy” sites, 23 are considered priority bird species, which means their long-term survival is threatened. The list is quite diverse, including the American white pelican, the willow flycatcher, the bank swallow, and the burrowing owl.

Now, just because a species is threatened, that doesn’t mean a few extra deaths are going to be a problem. After all, these facilities are in specific places, and bird populations can cover wide geographical regions. A few extra deaths in some regions can be compensated for by more reproductivity in other regions. Thus, the authors used models to estimate the impact that deaths from wind farms and solar facilities will have on the overall populations. They conclude:

This study shows that many of the bird species killed at renewable energy facilities are vulnerable to population or subpopulation-level effects from potential increases in fatalities from these and other anthropogenic mortality sources. About half (48%) of the species we considered were vulnerable, and they spanned a diverse suite of taxonomic groups of conservation concern that are resident to or that pass through California.

In other words, the study indicates that 11 priority bird species that live in or pass through California are now more at risk because of “green energy” sites in that state. Now, of course, this conclusion is model-dependent, and the models might be wrong. However, at minimum, this study identified with certainty that at least 23 species of threatened birds are being slaughtered at wind farms and solar facilities. That should cause people who actually care about the natural world at least some concern. Unfortunately, even though this study was published a month ago, I haven’t seen a single report about it in the popular press.

As an aside, it’s pretty obvious how wind farms kill birds, but how do solar energy facilities do it? The short answer is that we don’t know. What we do know is that birds tend to crash into solar panels. Perhaps they interpret the shiny surface of the solar panels as a body of water where they can land. Perhaps they interpret it as more sky. Whatever the reason, we know that birds are dying at solar farms. Preliminary research indicates that in the U.S., somewhere between 37,800 and 138,600 die each year as a result of crashing into solar panels.

So what’s the take-home message from this study? It’s rather simple:

The “green energy” solutions touted by politicians and the press are not necessarily better for the environment.

The fact is that “green energy” processes are mostly new, so their long-term effects on the environment are mostly unknown. Ten years ago, no one would have thought that wind farms and solar facilities might be threatening the long-term survival of certain bird species. We now know otherwise. And don’t forget the bats. The effect that wind farms have on their populations hasn’t been studied in nearly as much detail, even though more bats are slaughtered by wind farms than birds!

Those who are pushing “green energy” might actually be pushing environmentally-hostile energy without even knowing it. That’s what happens when those who call themselves “environmentalists” ignore science and simply follow the politicians and the press.

10 thoughts on “Slaughtering Species in the Name of “Green Energy””

  1. Someone here in California once told me that the other type of solar collectors are well known in the industry for killing birds. The design features parabolic mirrors which focus intense rays back at towers or water filled pipes. The beams get so hot that they can fry a bird which gets too close. He said there’s even a name for it – they call them “streamers” because the birds would suddenly stream down to the ground. I’m not sure how many of these farms there are compared to regular panel sites and what impact overall they have.

  2. While I’m not in a position to argue for or against the ecological effects of solar energy, it does seem that the number of bird deaths needs to be taken in context of total bird population and general trends.

    As high as the number of bird deaths appears on the surface, it still seems like this is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of birds across North America. It also seems like the populations of certain bird species are declining at much higher rates by a multitude of factors.

    While it seems like this issue is under reported, it probably is lower on the list of priorities for those who are advocating for preserving bird populations.

    1. I think you missed the point of the study I am discussing, Enoch. It says specifically that for at least 11 species, this is not a drop in the bucket. It represents a serious threat to their continued existence. Yes, as the study you linked points out, there has been a general decline in bird populations. As that study says, those declines have happened “…across a wide range of species and habitats.” However, the study I am discussing evaluates two specific causes (solar and wind facilities) and shows that for 11 species, they represent a serious threat.

  3. Why is nuclear energy so frowned upon? Isn’t it way cleaner than many other alternatives? Is it unsafe or something?

    1. I personally think nuclear is the best option for generating electricity. It doesn’t change the atmosphere, and it is relatively inexpensive. To me, it is the ideal green solution. Most people oppose it out of ignorance – they think anything with the word “nuclear” is bad. For example, MRI’s are actually Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imagers, and they were originally called that. However, the clinical trials of the machines couldn’t get many volunteers, because of the word “nuclear.” So they dropped it, and they then had no problems getting volunteers to be scanned.

      Now, the few anti-nuclear people who aren’t ignorant point to the radioactive waste it makes. It will be radioactive for thousands of years, so it is just stored away in special facilities that are far from population centers. If nuclear power were widely-used, it’s possible that there won’t be adequate storage for the waste. I don’t think that’s a problem, because good solutions have been suggested. Nevertheless, it is a concern.

  4. We recently drove through Texas, and it was basically a giant wind farm.
    What about Hydro and Biogas? Do the benefits outweigh the downfalls or vice-versa?

    1. I know hydroelectric plants alter the aquatic ecosystem, but I haven’t seen them linked to actually making animal populations decline significantly. I don’t think biogas has been used enough to know about its ecological impacts. The last time I looked into it, biogas was the most expensive renewable, which is why I assume it hasn’t been used extensively.

      1. Well, I don’t think biogas is being used extensively in the US, (probably because natural gas is cheaper and easier to access) but in other countries it is. Just off the top of my head, I’m told the entire bus system in Sweden is/was run on biogas, and is also commonly used in Switzerland. Big waste management facilities in Thailand produce biogas, and personal biogas digesters are commonly used by farmers in China and are becoming more common in Vietnam and South Pacific Islands such as Samoa. I personally think biogas has great potential to be produced cheaply, however, similar to my opinion of solar, I think it would be best utilized by individuals rather than large scale energy production (Every time I see a field of solar panels, I always think “They should tear them all down, build houses where the panels once stood, and then install the panels on every roof”). I learned about Biogas Technology from these guys:

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