5 Oct 2018

Location, location, location: how to reduce bird collisions

The global deployment of renewable energy such as wind power is key to tackling climate change. Yet placed in the wrong locations, wind turbines can harm wildlife such as birds and bats. The solution: strong science and technology that helps guide sustainable development.

© BSPB [BirdLife Partner, Bulgaria]
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

The expansion of renewable energy, such as wind or solar power, is critical in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the transition to clean energy. From almost every perspective, wind power is one of the most environmentally friendly energy sources. 

Wind turbines emit the lowest amount of carbon dioxide over their lifecycle, making them an important source of renewable energy. Additionally, although wind farms can cover large geographic areas, their actual footprint is fairly small, meaning that they can be placed on land already being used for grazing and farming, thus limiting their environmental impact. 

However, if situated in the wrong location, wind farms can harm birds and bats. Compounding the problem, a recent study by the British Trust for Ornithology and BirdLife International found that the species most likely to be affected by wind power, such as birds of prey, are already highly threatened. 

“The behaviour and morphology of certain groups, like large raptors, makes them highly susceptible to collision with poorly sited turbines,” says Tris Allinson, Senior Global Science Officer at BirdLife International. “Other groups, such as geese, actively avoid turbines, which can also cause problems such as displacement from favoured foraging spots.” 

The best way to avoid negative effects on birds is to ensure that wind turbines are placed in locations without sensitive species. In order to help facilitate this process, the Convention on Migratory Species created the Energy Task Force, a multi-stakeholder platform that works towards reconciling renewable energy developments with conservation of migratory species. Coordinated by BirdLife International, the Energy Task Force helps government and business to effectively identify cost-effective and wildlife-friendly sites for renewable energy development. 

“The Energy Task Force’s role is to provide support and guidance to governments, industry and community so they can make informed decisions on where they place renewable energy infrastructure,” says Dr. Ashton J. Berry, Global Climate Change Programme Coordinator at BirdLife International. Dr. Berry is also the Global Coordinator of the Convention of Migratory Species' Energy Task Force. 

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Much of this effort includes making data about wildlife available to developers. In 2006, for example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds [RSPB] (BirdLife Partner in the UK) mapped out areas of Scotland to determine where birds would be highly sensitive to wind farms, and areas where there would be less sensitivity. Based on available data at the time, the study found that nearly two-thirds of the country consisted of areas where wind farms would have low (or unknown) impact. 

Subsequent to RSPB’s efforts, BirdLife partners in numerous countries, including Bulgaria, Greece, South Africa, Slovenia and Ireland, developed and instituted similar sensitivity mapping tools. BirdLife works with partners in the Middle East and Northern Africa to create the first regional sensitivity mapping tool centred on the Rift Valley and the Red Sea flyway — the Soaring Bird Sensitivity Mapping Tool. The tool has since been expanded to cover much of the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East.

BirdLife International has also worked in partnership with Conservation International, IUCN and UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre to launch the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT), a subscription-based web resource. Us-ing information from BirdLife partners and other conservation organizations, the tool provides users with information on protected areas (from the World Database on Pro-tected Areas), sites of global conservation importance (Key Biodiversity Areas, including Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas and Alliance for Zero Extinction sites) and globally threatened species (the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; BirdLife is a Red List Partner and the Red List Authority for birds). 

IBAT has over 100 public and private sector subscribers including the WWF, World Bank, Harvard University, JPMorgan, A Rocha Ghana, Shell, Rio Tinto, UPC Renewables, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, and Mott MacDonald. Users describe the tool as “a must for any project on biodiversity conservation” and say that “IBAT gives us access to experts on data and biodiversity that we can’t get anywhere else”. It is actively used by companies involved in renewable energy projects who are applying the mitigation hierarchy in their project activities.

While these tools do not tell users whether or not they can develop a particular area, they alert users to the sensitivity of birds and other wildlife in a particular area to renewable energy developments, such as wind turbines. The user is then able to make informed decisions about where their wind energy development is best placed to minimise its ecological impact.

“Importantly, wind is a ubiquitous resource,” says Allinson. “With sufficient forethought and planning, we can meet all our renewable energy requirements without the need to locate wind farms in areas where they harm birds and other wildlife.”