18 Dec 2019

Making Japan’s expanding renewable energy sector bird-safe

Like many countries, Japan is making great strides in renewable energy – but at what cost? BirdLife supports sustainable energy sources – but it’s important to locate structures like wind farms out of harm’s way. Read how our Japanese Partner is using science and advocacy to change national decisions.

© zilkovec / Shutterstock
© zilkovec / Shutterstock
By Tatsuya Ura, Senior Research Biologist, Wild Bird Society of Japan

To date, Japan has over 2,000 wind turbines installed across the country. In 2018, a study conducted by the Wild Bird Society of Japan (WBSJ – BirdLife Partner) found some shocking results: that year, 569 birds had died from colliding with wind turbines. As expected, most of the victims were raptors, totaling 168 fatalities including 92 Black Kites Milvus migrans and 58 White-tailed Sea-eagles Haliaeetus albicilla. Second hardest hit were gulls with 68 fatalities, and corvids with 43. This supports the hypothesis that large predators and scavengers are at particularly high risk of collision because of their feeding behaviour. By necessity, they fly with their heads down, surveying the land beneath them for any sign of food – oblivious to larger obstacles higher up.

Two thirds of these fatalities were discovered through government surveys, while the rest were reported by passers-by. Further discoveries of the devastating effect of wind farms on the Grey-faced Buzzard Butastur indicus, Oriental Honey-buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus, Japanese Buzzard Buteo japonicus, Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons and Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus were discovered through additional radar surveys conducted by the WBSJ.

The danger is clear to see – and there are even more wind farms being constructed as we speak, both on land and out to sea. Migratory birds are particularly threatened by such structures as they often travel in large flocks along set routes. Any obstacles blocking their flight paths will not only cause fatalities, but may force them to burn crucial energy reserves diverting their route, or abandon much-needed rest stops altogether.

Raptors like the White-tailed Sea-eagle are particularly threatened by wind turbines, as they hunt looking down © Yathin S Krishnappa

Since 2005, the WBSJ been collecting information on the impact of wind farms, both from overseas and within Japan. They have used this important information to advocate for change, passing on the data to governments, industry and nature conservation groups in Japan. As a result of this advocacy, in 2012 the Ministry of the Environment (MoE) made it a legal requirement to perform environmental impact assessments for planned wind farms with large outputs.

Since 2010, the WBSJ has also been working with the private sector to influence the location of offshore wind farms at the planning stage, making sure they will not be located in the path of migratory flyways or near important bird habitats. WBSJ have been helping the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization to create guidelines on environmental impact assessments for offshore wind farms. Similar guidelines have also been taken up by the Ministry of the Environment. Slowly, the scene is changing.

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In 2015, the WBSJ was inspired by BirdLife’s Sensitivity Mapping Tool for migratory soaring birds in the rift valley. This resource maps out areas of high risk to birds, including migratory flight paths and Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas, informing businesses and governments on where – and where not – to locate wind farms. Following this model, WBSJ developed a sensitivity map for wind farms in northern Hokkaido. Then they passed on this successful technique to the MoE, who are now working on rolling it out nationally.

The challenge is ongoing, and does not just extend to wind farms. The government and private sector are now planning new, heavyweight powerlines carrying electricity from wind farms in northern Japan. Powerlines, like wind farms, are a big collision risk for large birds such as cormorants, swans, herons and cranes. In preparation, WBSJ is starting to advocate for the inclusion of powerlines in environmental impact assessment laws. As renewable energy expands, WBSJ is there every step of the way, working with key players to ensure the industry becomes safe for birds, both now and in the future.