Price of power
Hermann Hähnle was ahead of his time. In 1913, the German engineer presented a paper to his country’s Bird Protection Day about the disastrous impact of electricity power lines on Germany’s birds. He concluded that “electricity companies are in a position to reduce bird deaths to isolated cases without jeopardizing financial interests”.
Nearly one hundred years later, with electricity transmission lines criss-crossing the European landscape and electrification pursuing apace in developing countries, his proposition is all the more pertinent. It is also one that BirdLife Partners are seeking to make become reality. Electricity transmission infrastructure not only reduces the availability of bird staging, migrating and breeding areas, but kills birds directly by electrocution and collision.
Long-winged birds are most vulnerable, particularly if—like raptors and storks—they roost, nest or hunt from power poles: a quarter of French power line bird mortalities are raptors. Similarly, large birds are most susceptible to collision with power lines—particularly if flying in flocks, at speed or in poor visibility. Although only underground lines are entirely safe, medium-volt lines and their so-called ‘killer poles’ top the danger list. The problem is significant, affecting worrying numbers of Globally Threatened Birds. In Europe, with the world’s densest electricity network, victims include two Endangered (Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus and Saker Falcon Falco cherrug) and six Vulnerable species (Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus, Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga, Eastern Imperial Eagle A. heliaca, Spanish Imperial Eagle A. adalberti, Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata and GreatBustard Otis tarda).
Some 87 species are listed in appendices of the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and/or the Bern convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. And the problem is global, with Bald Eagles Haliaeetus leucocephalus in the United States, Golden Eagles A. chrysaetos in Mexico, and Cape Vultures Gyps coprotheres (Vulnerable) in South Africa falling foul of our fondness for fridges. Boris Barov, BirdLife’s European Conservation Manager, laments: “when you look globally, this is a massive issue”. Surveys, mainly by BirdLife Partners, catalogue the horror stories. In Kazakhstan, several hundred raptors—including two Eastern Imperial Eagles—were discovered under 11 km of power line.
“when you look globally, this is a massive issue” —Boris Barov, BirdLife’s European Conservation Manager
Of 628 corpses found by SEO/BirdLife beneath 482 km of Canary Islands’ lines, 82 were Houbara Bustards; lines probably killed 17% of the archipelago’s population. On theSpanish mainland, lines killed one in three juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagles, and Great Bustards have disappeared from traditional lek sites in the presence of power lines. In Hungary, 800 victims below 160 km of line in Hortobágy National Park included ten Saker and 44 Red-footed Falcons Falco vespertinus (Near Threatened). In a nationwide survey, MME (BirdLife in Hungary) discovered that one in seven power poles kills a bird and one in 18 a raptor, and that poles account for 95% of human-related White Stork Ciconia ciconia mortality.
The actual death toll in all these examples, is probably magnitudes higher, since surveys are rarely comprehensive and scavengers often remove corpses before discovery. In the Netherlands, an estimated half a million birds died annually before remedial action was taken, whilst MME calculates that a calamitous 12,000 raptors die annually in Hungary. Such figures should concern electricity utility companies, for bird-induced electrical outages have significant economic costs. As Boris Barov argues: “each power cut costs money so companies have no less interest than conservationists in resolving the problem”.
In California, the world’s tenth largest energy consumer, bird-related outages cost US$32–317 million annually. Birds cause 20% of voltage dips in South Africa, costing US$5.2 million annually: seventy per cent were thought avoidable if bird guards were fitted, a cost effective investment for the utility Eskom. Hungarian electricity provider DÉDÁSZ justified funding pole insulation on similar grounds. In the US, since Moon Lake Electric Association was fined $100,000 in 1999 for violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, utilities have had an additional motivation to make transmission bird-friendly.
Of all the ways humans accidentally kill raptors, none is more needless than electrocution. Suitable market-ready and affordable technology has existed for 20 years. SEO/BirdLife calculate that retrofitting killer poles in Spanish black spots would cost €46 million but reap rewards; insulating lines near Doñana National Park has already enabled a 60% rise in juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle survival. As Jorge Lozano, SEO/BirdLife’s power lines campaign head recognises, this was sustainable development in action: “Electricity transmission is perfectly compatible with conservation. We can conserve birds without having to dim the lights.”
“each power cut costs money so companies have no less interest than conservationists in resolving the problem” —Boris Barov, BirdLife
Conservation action really kicked off in the 1980s. MME and BSPB (BirdLife in Bulgaria) started working with utilities to install platforms for polenesting White Storks: “platforms are now widespread practice”, says BSPB’s Stoycho Stoychev. In 1985, following NABU (BirdLife in Germany) lobbying, Germany’s Government enshrined bird protection in power line construction regulations. NABU then advised on technical guidelines for which industry suddenly found appetite. Success came quickly. Two utilities ceased constructing aboveground medium-voltage power lines and started moving existing lines underground.
The last decade has seen a step change in activity, as the BirdLife Partnership has fulfilled the need to act regionally as well as nationally. After all, there was no point in solving the problem in one country only for migrating birds to collide with power lines over the border. For Boris Barov, “finding a common policy tool was a question of describing and promoting a common set of technical solutions. Case-by-case has been the approach for too many years”. NABU led the way, collaborating with the German Government to present a paper to the CMS summit in 2002. This prompted parties to pledge to address the problem. Demonstrating its commitment, Germany introduced legislation requiring new poles to be bird friendly and setting a ten-year deadline for retrofitting existing structures.
In 2004, BirdLife submitted a similar paper to the Bern Convention meeting; an equivalent ‘recommendation’ was adopted. Both documents advised signatories to apply the technical standards for birdfriendly pole construction developed by NABU and other BirdLife Partners. NABU and the CMS Secretariat now work jointly on raising public awareness. This shared international understanding of both problem and solution spurred countries into action. It inspired the Slovakian government to pass a law similar to Germany’s. Several CMS Parties published recommendations for transmission practices to reduce bird mortality. The UK developed techniques to increase power line visibility to birds, thereby minimising collisions. The French Government persuaded its national electricity company to bury 90% of new mediumvoltage lines. Italy and Ukraine implemented remedial ctions with national power companies; other countries will do so soon.
In Spain, SEO/BirdLife struck voluntary agreements with utilities to reduce mortality and launched a public awareness campaign that, after years of lobbying, looks set to result in national legislation. In Hungary, says MME Director Gergõ Halmos, “the Bonn and Bern agreements gave us and the government a springboard for action”.
MME targeted national park ‘black spots’, insulating over 30,000 of Hungary’s 650,000 killer poles. BSPB will soon start to “insulate all dangerous poles within Eastern Imperial Eagle territories”, says Stoycho Stoychev.
"there's a long way to go before birds will find themselves safe from power lines” —Jorge Lozano, SEO/BirdLife
LPO (BirdLife in France) recently joined forces with Éléctricité de France (EDF) and a natural parks authority to insulate key lines and poles in the Camargue, one of Europe’s bestknownImportant Bird Areas (IBAs). Allain Bougrain Dubourg, LPO President, declares himself “delighted with such a collaboration”. EDF is also helping LPO on an EU LIFE project on Cinereous Vultures Aegypius monachus (Near Threatened).
In the Czech Republic, CSO (BirdLife Partner) is working with the main electricity company to address dangerous pylon design. And the issue is now on the radar of international finance institutions; the World Bank has requested measures to reduce bird mortality on new power lines in the region of seasonal wetlands in Indochina. Regrettably, however, international soft law is never a panacea. As Boris Barov emphasises, Bonn and Bern are “not legally binding”. For Governments with limited resources such as Bulgaria, this often means deprioritisation in favour of compliance with legal commitments, such as European Union acquis.
So things do not always go conservationists’ way. In response, BirdLife strengthened the Partnership’s hand by issuing a position statement—including technical guidelines—so that EU Partners sing from the same hymn sheet when working with national electricity companies. BirdLife asks utilities to lay transmission cables underground wherever possible and to introduce technical standards for safe power poles and compulsory retrofitting of existing killer poles. The Partnership wants power lines diverted from Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and Special Protection Areas. And BirdLife requests Governments to subject all planned power lines to appropriate environmental impact assessments; according to the CMS Secretariat, perhaps two-thirds of parties now do so. The BirdLife Partnership is justified in acting so vigorously. In many countries, hazardous poles remain abundant so, Boris Barov considers, “retrofitting remains the biggest challenge”.
Utility awareness is erratic: Stoycho Stoychev says that BSPB “had to start from scratch following electricity industry privatisation”. Voluntary agreements with electricity utilities are key to retrofit ‘black spots’ but rarely address the entire problem. More national legislation is needed. German experience shows that killer poles started to disappear or be retrofitted on a large scale only after legislative action. At a minimum, as Boris Barov acknowledges, “legislation can help by setting rules for proper planning and impact assessment”. Meanwhile, keeping pace with developing country electrification will be testing.
Nearly one hundred years on from Hermann Hähnle’s paper, the BirdLife Partnership is tackling power lines head on. Partners know that cross-sectoral collaboration is key. For Gergõ Halmos, “this is a three party game”, with NGOs, utilities and Government needing to cooperate effectively. But the battle is far from won. As Jorge Lozano, a modern-day Hermann Hähnle admits: “Even though we are working on several fronts, there’s a long way to go before birds will find themselves safe from power lines.”
by James Lowen
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