Birds, Blades and Bad History

Timlynn Babitsky | Bird kills,Issues: Strategies & Tactics | Sunday, April 6th, 2008

by Timlynn Babitsky
Of all the reasons for resisting a wind project, the most emotional has to do with the potential for wind turbines to kill birds. The most notorious case in point, and the one that has probably done more damage to wind power development than any other, is the history of bird kills in the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California.

Since the 1980s when the Pass became populated with turbines, thousands of birds have been decimated. No one knows exactly just how many birds are killed by the Altamont turbines, but a 2004 California Energy Commission report estimated that total bird kills were somewhere between 1,766 to 4,721 per year. These include golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and burrowing owls.

Of the 5,000 or so turbines in the Altamont Pass, approximately 300 of them are known culprits in the massive bird kills. And, various law suits have demanded that the most deadly turbines be taken down or moved.

Although the wind blows fiercely in the Pass, and turbine blades spin incredibly fast, many experts agree that the number of windmills at Altamont, and the many old, small turbines are the cause of the bird kill problem.

Replacing the older, smaller turbines with fewer, more powerful ones – a process called “repowering” – would be a big part of the solution. Repowering the Pass with larger turbines would dramatically reduce the number of turbines and replace rapidly spinning blades with ones that turn more slowly and are higher off the ground.

Altamont Pass has one of the highest bird mortality rates, but full repowering of the 50 square mile site would cost about $1 billion.

In the 1980s, little was really known about the effect of wind turbines on bird migration and bird kills but the Altamont data has provided a bad history that wind energy resistors use to their advantage to raise resistance against wind projects.

Avian issues are real, but turbines in general are not at all as deadly as the ones in Altamont, nor is every location a danger to birds. Avian kills are a serious issue, and both the wind industry and the birds need to be protected. But your best defense to the avian kill debate as it affects your project is to do your homework first. Study your proposed wind project site and know as much as you possibly can about the bird fly patterns in the area.

To read more on the Altamont Pass bird kill issue, check out the January 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article “The Deadly Toll of Wind Power” by Charles Burress.