Electricity from wind energy is a major contributor to the strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use and thus reduce the negative impacts of climate change. Wind energy, like all power sources, can have adverse impacts on wildlife. After nearly 25 years of focused research, these impacts are much better understood, although uncertainty remains. In this report, we summarize positive impacts of replacing fossil fuels with wind energy, while describing what we have learned and what remains uncertain about negative ecological impacts of the construction and operation of land-based and offshore wind energy on wildlife and wildlife habitat in the U.S. Finally, we propose research on ways to minimize these impacts.
- Environmental and other benefits of wind energy include near-zero greenhouse gas emissions, reductions of other common air pollutants, and little or no water use associated with producing electricity from wind energy. Various scenarios for meeting U.S. carbon emission reduction goals indicate that a four- to five-fold expansion of land-based wind energy from the current 97 gigawatts (GW) by the year 2050 is needed to minimize temperature increases and reduce the risk of climate change to people and wildlife.
- Collision fatalities of birds and bats are the most visible and measurable impacts of wind energy production. Current estimates suggest most bird species, especially songbirds, are at low risk of population-level impacts. Raptors as a group appear more vulnerable to collisions. Population-level impacts on migratory tree bats are a concern, and better information on population sizes is needed to evaluate potential impacts to these species. Although recorded fatalities of cave-dwelling bat species are typically low at most wind energy facilities, additional mortality from collisions is a concern given major declines in these species due to white-nose syndrome (WNS). Assessments of regional and cumulative fatality impacts for birds and bats have been hampered by the lack of data from areas with a high proportion of the nation’s installed wind energy capacity. Efforts to expand data accessibility from all regions are underway, and this greater access to data along with improvements in statistical estimators should lead to improved impact assessments.
- Habitat impacts of wind energy development are difficult to assess. An individual wind energy facility may encompass thousands of acres, but only a small percentage of the landscape within the project area is directly transformed. If a project is sited in previously undisturbed habitat, there is concern for indirect impacts, such as displacement of sensitive species. Studies to date indicate displacement of some species, but the long-term population impacts are unknown.
- Offshore wind energy development in the U.S. is just beginning. Studies at offshore wind facilities in Europe indicate some bird and marine mammal species are displaced from project areas, but substantial uncertainty exists regarding the individual or population-level impacts of this displacement. Bird and bat collisions with offshore turbines are thought to be less common than at terrestrial facilities, but currently the tools to measure fatalities at offshore wind energy facilities are not available.
The wind energy industry, state and federal agencies, conservation groups, academia, and scientific organizations have collaborated for nearly 25 years to conduct the research needed to improve our understanding of risk to wildlife and to avoid and minimize that risk. Efforts to reduce the uncertainty about wildlife risk must keep up with the pace and scale of the need to reduce carbon emissions. This will require focusing our research priorities and increasing the rate at which we incorporate research results into the development and validation of best practices for siting and operating wind energy facilities.
We recommend continued focus on (1) species of regulatory concern or those where known or suspected population-level concern exists but corroborating data are needed, (2) research improving risk evaluation and siting to avoid impacts on species of concern or sensitive habitats, (3) evaluation of promising collision-reducing technologies and operational strategies with high potential for widespread implementation, and (4) coordinated research and data pooling to enable statistically robust analysis of infrequent, but potentially ecologically significant impacts for some species.