Bird-friendly renewable energy: introducing the Energy Task Force
New techniques and an international Task Force are helping to make renewable energy projects more bird-friendly than ever before
Migrating birds get a lot of interference from human activity, and it’s unfortunate that some of it comes from our attempts to be more environmentally friendly. The killing of birds by wind turbines and other clean energy equipment may sound like a canard trotted out by those who oppose the proliferation of renewable generation, but the truth is that some birds, especially birds of prey, can find themselves in danger as they pass our installations.
Associated Press figures have the number of birds killed by turbines in the United States alone at half a million a year, and bats are equally at risk, as the spinning blades — the tips of which can be travelling at almost 200 mph — can cause barotrauma, disorientation from changes in air pressure. It’s not just turbines that are at fault, however: in Sudan, thousands of Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus, an Endangered species, were electrocuted by a power line as they tried to use it as a perch. The line was turned off in 2014 after a successful campaign involving BirdLife Partners in the region.
Often, the problem is in the location of energy infrastructure. A badly planned instalment can result in collisions, displace birds from preferred habitats, or block migratory routes. Power outages caused by birds are bad for business, and are of course unpopular among local communities. At a smaller level, turbines and powerlines can damage individual sites that are important for a species, or break them into fragments making it difficult for large flocks to stay together. Some countries’ planning laws require bat and bird assessments as part of an application for new energy developments, but this isn’t the case in all parts of the world.
These problems were recognised at the 11th meeting of the United Nations’ Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) in 2014, with the adoption of a resolution that convened “a multi-stakeholder Task Force on Reconciling Selected Energy Sector Developments with Migratory Species Conservation.” Known as the Energy Task Force, this group supports the implementation of good practice guidelines, makes recommendations, and develops tools and guidance to avoid negative effects on migratory species from energy sector developments.
The Task Force currently spans Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and eventually plans to go global.
“The strength of the Task Force is its diversity”, says Task Force Coordinator, BirdLife’s Edward Perry. “The Task Force provides a platform where environment and energy ministries, conservation organisations, international financial institutions, and the energy sector are able to collaborate to identify, share and scale up pragmatic solutions for sustainable energy development.”
“It’s an international problem, so as an international organisation, BirdLife is really well placed to tackle the problem”, says Katja Garson, from BirdLife’s Global Policy Team. “Our global network of Partners allows us to work across entire flyways to reduce the cumulative impacts of energy instalments on vultures and other migratory soaring birds.”
“The best and cheapest way to ensure that wind turbines do not have an adverse impact on birds is to site them away from vulnerable species and major migration routes”, says Tris Allinson, Senior Global Science Officer at BirdLife and member of the Task Force. “BirdLife has led the way in developing spatial tools such as bird sensitivity maps that help identify areas to be avoided.”
The first sensitivity maps were developed for Scotland and England by the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK). Subsequently, a number of other BirdLife Partners around the world have developed similar national tools, including in Bulgaria, South Africa and Ireland. Working with its national Partners, BirdLife has also developed the Soaring Bird Sensitivity Mapping Tool covering southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Where not to build a windfarm: a screenshot of BirdLife’s Soaring Bird Sensitivity Mapping Tool
Where wind farms have been built in sensitive locations actions can be taken to minimise collisions. This can include using observers, radar and cameras to detect incoming birds, and switching the turbines off as they approach — a technique known as “Shutdown on demand”. The prevention of bird electrocution is also an area the Task Force is looking at, with recommendations that power lines are buried, marked with flight diverters, or modified so that there is greater distance between the cables and anything that could earth a bird perching on them.
Where knowledge is lacking, the Task Force stimulates research, and the exchange of information and practices between agencies working toward the same goals who might not otherwise communicate. And while there is still much work to be done, its existence is a step in the right direction for the protection of birds as we attempt to transform the way we generate and distribute electricity.
Click here to learn more about the work of the Energy Task Force