A new study from by the Nature Conservancy offers some encouraging news for the potential to tap America’s vast wind power resources, while avoiding significant new impacts on wildlife. The study is called “Win-Win for Wind and Wildlife: A Vision to Facilitate Sustainable Development,” and it underscores the irony of our industrial and agricultural development — as it turns out, there is plenty of land available for wind power installations, because we’ve made so much land inhospitable for wildlife. The study can be viewed on PLoS ONE, an online portal for peer-reviewed research.
A Problem for Wind Power
Much of the environmental concern over the widespread installation of wind turbines has to do with the potential for the blades to kill birds and bats. However, even if turbine designs are altered to mitigate these impacts, there could be a significant, cumulative impact on wildlife due to habitat loss. Although a wind farm doesn’t have a continuous footprint like, say, a mountaintop coal mining operation, it still has a footprint. In the midwest, for example, turbines can disrupt nesting for sage grouse and prairie chickens. The study points out that most of the 1300 species protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act are in that status because of habitat loss, and can ill afford any additional destruction.
A Simple Solution
The study suggests that much of the habitat issue could be resolved simply by siting wind farms on what it calls “disturbed” lands, for example where agriculture, oil and gas development have already occurred. According to the study, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that about 241 GW (Gigawatts) of land-based wind installations are needed to provide 20 percent of the nation’s energy by 2030, and disturbed lands alone have the potential for about 3,500 GW. It would take a coordinated policy to prevent wholesale interference with food and biofuel crop production, but siting wind turbines on farmland can benefit local agricultural economies in addition to avoiding habitat destruction for imperiled species.
The U.S. EPA, One Step Ahead
Actually, the Obama administration has already begun to exploit the alternative energy potential of disturbed lands in the form of brownfields and Superfund sites, with a program called RE-Powering America’s Lands. Since turbines can be constructed with a shallow footprint, wind power is a good option for Superfund sites that preclude excavation. Partly devised as a green jobs and economic revival program, RE-Powering America’s Lands has identified millions of acres of classified sites with potential for redevelopment for wind power and other renewable energy installations. To some extent these are located in urban areas, which were not included in the Nature Conservancy study, so it appears that if anything the study may have lowballed the availability of disturbed lands for wind power.
Making Room for Wind Power
Although impacts on migrating species are still of concern, the study asserts that “guiding development toward areas with existing footprints” could have a positive effect on the ability of species to adapt to climate change, by helping to avoid habitat loss. However, the study also recognizes that there are short term economic incentives for siting alternative energy on undisturbed lands; quite simply, if it is cheaper to build on undisturbed land, then that is where the pressure will be felt. With RE-Powering America’s Lands, the Obama administration has already indicated a clear understanding that federal policies – and federal funding – can steer alternative energy development in a more sustainable direction. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives isn’t even close to envisioning a similar policy. Stay tuned.
Image: Minnesota wind farm
- Installed Wind Power Capacity per Capita (Country Comparisons)
- Installed Wind Power Capacity per GDP
- World Wind Power Capacity & An Idea
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.