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Will Painting Wind Turbine Blades Minimise Bird Collisions?

A new research project has been initiated to determine whether changing the colour of wind turbine blades will have any effect on the number of bird deaths caused by birds unceremoniously careening into the massive blades.

The project is a of Energy Norway and involves Statkraft, Statoil, Vattenfall, Trønder Energi Kraft, NVE and NINA, along with support from the Research Council of Norway.

The project, nicknamed INTACT, has begun its trial at the Smøla wind farm in the north of Norway, in the county of Møre og Romsdal. The wind farm comprises 68 wind turbines, with an overall capacity of 150 MW. The Smøla wind farm produces enough energy annually to power 17,800 Norwegian homes.

“Countless hours of research have been spent on this issue since the Smøla wind farm was completed in 2005, and there are few places in the world where so much is known about bird behaviour in the vicinity of wind power generation,” said biologist and senior environmental advisor Bjørn Iuell at Statkraft.

Iuell explains that “smaller birds, like grouse and ducks, fly lower than for instance white-tailed eagles, and we think more visible turbine towers might prevent collisions,” which is why the plan is to paint of of the three rotor blades black, and look at whether increasing the contrast at the lower part of the turbines will reduce the number of bird collisions.

“The idea of using some sort of paint is certainly very interesting,” says Iuell. “There are some methods on the market today, most of them still in the experimental phase, which are intended to scare birds away from wind turbines. The problem is that most of them depend on both power supply and advanced technology, and this makes them less practical for offshore use, for instance. Paint is much simpler. It can be applied to the installations during the production phase, with no additional resources needed for operation and maintenance. No wonder, then, that this project is being watched by many research and industry groups around the world.”

But paint isn’t the only thing INTACT is looking into; UV light is also an option that the researchers believe might alleviate the issue. Birds are able to see UV light better than we humans can, and installing UV lamps on wind turbines may be one part of the solution.

Why the big focus on bird mortality, though? It seems like a big step — scientifically, but also economically — to dedicate so much time and resources to an issue which, in the long run, isn’t much of an issue at all.

How Stuff Works have a really decent write-up on the real statistics surrounding this issue, and their relative insignificance when put into a larger picture;

Man-made structure/technology

Associated bird deaths per year (U.S.)

Feral and domestic cats Hundreds of millions [source: AWEA]
Power lines 130 million — 174 million [source: AWEA]
Windows (residential and commercial) 100 million — 1 billion [source: TreeHugger]
Pesticides 70 million [source: AWEA]
Automobiles 60 million — 80 million [source: AWEA]
Lighted communication towers 40 million — 50 million [source: AWEA]
Wind turbines 10,000 — 40,000 [source: ABC]

In fact, the suspicion that wind turbines are somehow racking up the bird death-count like some sort of morbid flash-animated video game leads primarily back to the out-dated Altamont Pass wind farm.

By applying the mortality rates at Altamont Pass to every wind farm in the United States, the bird-mortality figures became extremely inflated. In fact, Altamont Pass is a unique case of a wind farm that is truly a significant hazard to birds.

Altamont Pass is different for two main reasons: turbine location and turbine design.

While Altamont Pass is one of the first wind farms in the US, it’s turbine design is long out of date, and any extrapolation based on the Altamont Pass verges on the scientifically-criminal.

Regardless, the INTACT research project may help to sooth the feathers (get it?) of animal-rights activists if a cheap and sensible solution is discovered, and found to be easy to implement everywhere.

Title Image Credit: Graeme Maclean via Flickr / Some rights reserved

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