Do offshore wind turbines kill birds?

All forms of energy generation have an impact on the environment. As the UK moves towards an aggressive electricity decarbonisation programme, it is encouraging therefore to see Friends of the Earth taking the lead in carrying out an open-minded science-based assessment of the potential biodiversity impacts of marine renewables – principally meaning offshore wind turbines, tidal stream generators and floating wave devices.

The impacts of land based wind turbines on birds and bats are well-known, and often mentioned by those who oppose wind power – though I suspect wildlife concerns are almost never the principal reason for such opposition. Nevertheless, bird collisions do happen, and poorly-sited onshore wind farms in the US, Norway and Tasmania have been shown to hit populations of raptors such as eagles, vultures and hawks.

It is less clear whether any significant harm is done to birds by onshore wind in the UK – but even so, with the wind industry moving increasingly offshore because of the swelling tide of nimby opposition in the shires, it is crucial to get a handle at an early stage on whether there might be serious harm to marine biodiversity as we embark on building multi-gigawatt offshore wind farms and other energy infrastructure in the sea. Friends of the Earth commissioned Martin Attrill, a marine ecologist who is director of the Plymouth University Marine Institute, to do an expert literature review with this end in mind.

offshore wind

(c) Kim Hansen

As the report begins by pointing out, achieving the 2030 electricity decarbonisation target recommended by the Committee on Climate Change – of 50g/KWh – will require at least a tenfold expansion of marine renewables, even if accompanied by a simultaneous new-build programme for nuclear or carbon capture and storage. Personally I would support a target of the UK securing at least 40% of its electricity from offshore wind, and substantial additional contributions from other marine renewables as rapidly as they can be scaled up.

What is most striking in the report is just how benign offshore wind and other renewables currently appear to be to marine biodiversity. There is very little evidence of any harmful impact on birds: some species of duck have been shown to take minor migratory detours to avoid wind farms, but many other seabirds tend to skim along the water surface well below the spinning turbine blades. Underwater the impact may even be positive, as the subsea concrete structures provide new reef-style habitat for shellfish and seaweed. Scientists studying wind farms in the sea off Belgium discovered “large aggregations” of pouting and cod, while the additional fish numbers seemed to attract porpoise and birds elsewhere.

Part of this benefit may lie in reducing fishing activity – the seabed of the North Sea in particular has been utterly devastated by decades of trawling: as late as the early twentieth century large areas were covered by oyster beds, these filter feeders making the waters crystal clear. Today’s muddy, turgid North Sea and soft, largely lifeless sea bed is an unnatural phenomenon, a product of the fact that by the 1970s the oyster beds and various rocky reefs had been completely destroyed by trawlers ploughing up the bottom. As Martin Attrill suggests, if offshore developments can be accompanied by no-fishing marine protected areas, these can help preserve fish stocks and provide a refuge for species which have been driven to the brink of extinction elsewhere.

Marine mammals are an additional concern – but here too the news seems to be cautiously  good. Although the driving of piles into the seabed during construction can drive away cetaceans, this is a temporary phenomenon. Badly-placed underwater tidal turbines might be expected to injure dolphins, migrating fish or diving birds, but there is so far no evidence of this. Indeed, the 1-MW tidal turbine in Northern Ireland’s Strangford Lough is near a grey seal colony and has been carefully monitored for several years – so far it seems that the seals simply avoid the underwater blades without a problem.

None of this means that development should simply go ahead without any concern. As Attrill writes in his conclusion:

However, although rapid deployment of MRE [marine renewable energy] at scale is necessary, this is not a reason to avoid deploying MRE sensitively and with care. Developers and regulators should work closely with marine ecologists and conservation groups at an early stage to identify suitable locations for the MRE and associated cabling. The Habitats Directive should be clearly complied with, in both spirit and letter. Developers should strive to enhance marine biodiversity and productivity.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. As deployment scales up in a big way, we need to keep gathering evidence of environmental impact. But there is nothing to suggest currently that biodiversity is a reason to hold up deployment – as Friends of the Earth’s Mike Childs told me on the phone yesterday: “We need to get building!”

I would also encourage marine conservation groups like wildlife trusts and dolphin conservation charities, as well as the RSPB, to be closely involved with this effort. They have many decades-worth of experience in this area, and positive engagement will be crucial. Although I haven’t studied their energy policies in detail, I don’t doubt that all of them will appreciate the urgent challenge posed by climate change – not least to the marine environment, along with ocean acidification – and would agree that we should deploy the maximum amount of clean energy with the utmost speed. Their experience can help us choose what goes where, and help guide how to minimise negative impacts and maximise positive benefits on the marine wildlife which we all value so highly.

14 comments

  1. Rod Adams says:

    Mark

    I am no fan of offshore wind development for a variety of reasons.

    1. Based on my naval experience, I can testify that the environment is harsh. Equipment that can survive there is expensive.
    2. Based on my sailing experience, I can testify that the wind is just as unreliable at sea as it is over land. Some promoters seem to believe that the wind is always blowing over the water, but I have been there. I can remember whole days of calm where it would have been possible to comfortably waterski on the ocean.
    3. Marine life has evolved to use sound in ways similar to the way that land creatures use light. It is the only portion of the wave spectrum that travels well through water, so marine creatures use it to communicate and to sense their environment. They have evolved to have very sensitive receptors and can be readily disturbed by unusual noises. That is especially true at low frequencies because those are the frequencies that travel best through water. Those are also the frequencies that are produced by large, industrial scale wind turbines.
    4. Maintaining large off shore wind turbines is a very challenging operation that is bound to be fossil fuel intensive, probably requiring the use of helicopters. How does that help our energy challenge?
    5. Transmission cables under water are not new technology, but high voltage, high current cables are nothing like the communications cables that we know so well. They are quite challenging because their need to carry electrical current contributes to the inherent corrosion challenges of operating in sea water. They can be adequately insulated, but the cost is far higher than the value returned when they are going to be idle much of the time due to the unreliability discussed in number 2 above.

    Bottom line:
    I am with you in the need to reduce CO2 emissions, but off shore wind is a loser on so many levels. We have a better, cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and more reliable alternative. Nuclear fission works fine, will last a very long time.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

    • Hector Balint says:

      They’ve been building oil and gas platforms in the North Sea for forty years and, although they catch fire and explode now and then, they don’t get washed, blown, or even rusted away. These things can be quite big. The engineering challenges to building an offshore windfarm are similar, though at a smaller scale. A vast amount of capital has been sunk into the equipment and training of men for oil and gas construction, which as that market contracts, makes it likely, for better or worse, that the windfarms will be built. Expensive? Possibly, but they can and have been built on time for an agreed price. How are things coming along at Oikiluoto? I just searched it on your website and no mention. Suprising. The first nuclear plant to be built in the west for a generation. Look it up. You might get an atomic insght.
      The answer to Mark Lynas’s question is yes. Even communications towers kill thousands of night flying birds. I don’t see anybody chucking out their TV or mobile phone.

    • Hector Balint says:

      Apologies Rod Adams……. abundant posts on Olkiluoto on Atomic Insights Blog…possible explanation for slow progress there might be suppliers misspelling the address. Quite easy to do.

    • Mark Duchamp says:

      Hector, you wrote: “Even communications towers kill thousands of night flying birds. I don’t see anybody chucking out their TV or mobile phone.”

      We know, and you could also have mentioned the cats and windows argument. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and there is also one BIG difference: TVs and mobile phones are useful, whereas windfarms are not.

      I invite you to read this:
      http://www.iberica2000.org/Es/Articulo.asp?Id=4540

      You will find that windfarms are no better than snake oil.
      But on the negative side, they are much, much worse.

  2. Clive Hambler says:

    Unfortunately, despite your best intentions, this is too optimistic. We’ve been here before – repeatedly: “green” groups claiming some energy technology looks better than evil fossil or nuclear fuels, then realising the scale of the damage that will be done by massive-scale use.

    There are already warnings from experts, just as there were for the patent follies of terrestrial wind farms in sea-eagle habitat, the near-criminal disaster of biofuel from food crops and orang-utan habitat, the rising disgrace of biomass from already over-exploited forests all over the world, the scourge of dams, large or small. As for any tidal barrages – for wildlife’s sake, no!!

    Small seabirds have only recently been tracked, as suitable technology becomes available. Yet research already shows some species of concern, such as Manx Shearwaters, use proposed sites for massive wind farms. If people deploy turbines, and find a serious impact (despite the monitoring challenges), I trust you will call for the farms to be decommissioned. As for this un-ecological haste: remember base-line surveys in ecology and animal behaviour can take many decades. The longer-lived the species, the more at risk it might be. What’s happening to the precautionary approach required by the Convention on Biological Diversity?

    Remember no-take zones could become population sinks, attracting birds and killing them. Artificial structures might “improve” habitat, but it is risky to assume so. There will be external edge-effects into the surrounding marine zone – predation might increase on high-value species. Fishing might be displaced to other high-value sites. Fog banks can form over some offshore wind farms.

    The sad thing about all these renewable technologies is that they are definitely not essential, and the consequences of deployment may be more irreversible than the proposed (and often disputed) benefits. Research them properly first. Don’t leap in with arbitrary targets – and destroy wildlife in a different (more immediate) way than climate change eventually might.

  3. Mark Duchamp says:

    As chairman of the World Council for Nature, I wish to warn of the perils of wind energy both onshore and offshore.

    First, allow me to situate this discussion in a transparent context:

    Governments have litterally “swallowed as gospel” the salespitch of wind industry lobbyists and “green” activists regarding the efficacity of windpower in reducing the use of fossil fuels. They have NOT commissionned ANY study on this particular matter, and are forging ahead in the dark with what is essentially an unproven technology. The United Nations have recently warned the European Union on this score: http://epaw.org/media.php?lang=en&article=pr28

    There are at least half a dozen studies on the matter made by independent engineers on their own time and money. They analyse the increased CO2 emissions that windpower causes fossil fuel power plants to produce. In effect, these must ramp up and down their production all day to compensate the vagaries of the wind, thus preventing black-outs on the Grid. But in this “back-up” operation mode, they are forced to operate inefficiently, consuming more fuel per kWh produced, and needing more maintenance.

    The engineers did the numbers, and concluded that the net savings are a fraction of those claimed by the industry. Some go as far as warning that the savings will turn NEGATIVE when the share of windpower in the energy mix reaches a certain point (Le Pair, from the Netherlands, calculated this “penetration” to be 20%) .

    These conclusions are confirmed by the lack of fuel and CO2 savings in those countries that boast the largest numbers of wind turbines per capita: Denmark, Germany and Spain.

    The success of windfarms may have more to do with the financing of electoral campaigns than it has with sustainability. In fact, many energy experts predict that the wind bubble will burst. Indeed, if it were not for subsidies, this technology would have been still-born.

    This is the context of the debate regarding the effects of offshore windfarms on the environment. I think it had to be stated.

    • Brian says:

      Here, have a study on exactly that subject: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es2038432

      It’s an analysis of integration of wind energy into a primarily thermal on-demand generating regime (that of the State of Illinois). Modelling emissions levels, including startup emissions from cycling, at various percentages of wind sourced generation, when production is managed with proper planning and modelling of daily availability of generator capacity and demand (standard practice at large modern utilities), while there is an increase in cycling emissions at higher percentages of wind generation, the overall CO2 emissions are significantly reduced even at higher percentages of supply.

      Here, when wind accounts for 20% of the power dispatch, the overall CO2 reduction is about 18%. Not 20%, but certainly not negative. Even at 40% of the power dispatch, you get a roughly 33% reduction in CO2.

      Of course, the actual percentages in a particular power grid will vary depending on the specific existing sources of generation, transmission, geography, and demand patterns where wind is introduced, and certainly should be factored in when choosing whether to build. But it’s untrue to say that no-one is doing the work. Certainly utilities are. They after all have to manage it, and plan accordingly. The levels of planning and the specifics are usually not publicly distributed, most of the public doesn’t care to know, but they’re hardly secret either.

  4. Mark Duchamp says:

    Mark,

    You wrote: “It is less clear whether any significant harm is done to birds by onshore wind in the UK.”

    I think it will become clearer if you read this:
    Windfarms: bird mortality cover-up in the UK
    http://savetheeaglesinternational.org/releases/windfarms-bird-mortality-cover-up-in-the-uk.html

    In Spain, where the cover was blown away by a change of management in SEO/Birdlife (the Spanish RSPB), the truth has appeared in all its horror: Spain’s 18,000 wind turbines kill, yearly, 6 to 18 million birds and bats.
    http://savetheeaglesinternational.org/releases/spanish-wind-farms-kill-6-to-18-million-birds-bats-a-year.html

  5. Mark Duchamp says:

    You also wrote: “What is most striking in the report is just how benign offshore wind and other renewables currently appear to be to marine biodiversity.”

    Windfarms will ALWAYS appear to be benign on the environment when the studies are made by furiously pro-wind entities like the RSPB, or by consultants who make a living from such studies: how do you expect them to bite the hand that feeds them?

    Before they changed management, SEO/Birdlife were generously funded by government and windfarm interests. At one point, it transpired that Iberdrola and Triodos Bank (the bank specialising in financing renewables) were contributing 25% to the budget of SEO/Birdlife.

    How much money are the RSPB making from their pro-windfarm stance, do you think? Their financial statements are not published. The public doesn’t know how many shares they own in wind energy companies, etc.
    You may find the following to be of interest:
    http://fakecharities.org/2009/01/charity-207076/

  6. Mark Duchamp says:

    Mark,

    You wrote: “But there is nothing to suggest currently that biodiversity is a reason to hold up deployment – as Friends of the Earth’s Mike Childs told me on the phone yesterday: “We need to get building!””

    Friends of the Earth are the most hysterical of activists. They believe the end of the world is coming, and want to put these bird choppers eveywhere, as if they were effective in “saving the planet” – which is highly doubtful as I mentioned earlier here in “context”. I am surprised you would ask their advice, and not even bother to ask that of opposing NGOs like EPAW, Save the Eagles International, WCFN, Country Guardian, NA-PAW, Fédération Environnement Durable, etc.

    As a result, your article lacks balance (nothing personal).

  7. Dave Blees says:

    Mark – Your uninformed bias is all too clear when you wrote:

    “The impacts of land based wind turbines on birds and bats are well-known, and often mentioned by those who oppose wind power – though I suspect wildlife concerns are almost never the principal reason for such opposition. Nevertheless, bird collisions do happen, and poorly-sited onshore wind farms in the US, Norway and Tasmania have been shown to hit populations of raptors such as eagles, vultures and hawks…
    “…It is less clear whether any significant harm is done to birds by onshore wind in the UK – but even so, with the wind industry moving increasingly offshore because of the swelling tide of nimby opposition in the shires, it is crucial to get a handle at an early stage on whether there might be serious harm to marine biodiversity as we embark on building multi-gigawatt offshore wind farms and other energy infrastructure in the sea.”

    - what is the basis for your suspicion that “wildlife concerns are almost never the principal reason for such opposition”? Can you spell out for those of us too dim to figure it out what exactly it is you think is the main driver of opposition, in that case?

    - “Nevertheless, bird collisions do happen,” No sh*t? And you seem to shrug it off as casually as any Vestas engineer…

    - your quaint reference to the “swelling tide of nimby opposition in the shires” belies your naive level of ignorance on the scope of the subject, and reminds us glaringly that you are indeed a writer, and no scientist.

    Please do a bit more research before gracing us with your next piece of pro-wind wind. Like maybe crunch some numbers to expose just how ridiculously expensive and inefficient gargantuan offshore projects will be.
    Oh, and why don’t you take a sailboat on your next junket to the States? Sure would keep that carbon footprint down…
    “Wind Power”? You’re kidding, right?

  8. Erich Riesenberg says:

    I live in the US and heard Mark Lynas on a public radio program today so came across this website.

    As a non expert, I tried to follow the comments of Mark DuChamp. Unfortunately, DuChamp appears to support his comments by citing things he has already written at SEO.

    What a mess. If wind turbines kill birds I hope someone other than DuChamp and dirty energy supporters take notice.

    • Mark Duchamp says:

      You are wrong, moosebreath! :-)

      I don’t “write in SEO”, then refer to it as proof.
      SEO is the Spanish Ornithological Society (Sociedad Española de Ornitología) and represents Birdlife International in Spain, like the RSPB in the UK etc.

      The figures they published in 2012 – 6 to 18 million birds and bats killed per year by 18,000 wind turbines located in Spain – come from 136 official monitoring studies they obtained from the Spanish government under freedom of information legislation. In other words, these reports were hidden from the public.
      http://savetheeaglesinternational.org/releases/spanish-wind-farms-kill-6-to-18-million-birds-bats-a-year.html

      BTW, you spelled my name wrong. It’s Duchamp.

  9. Dino says:

    wildlife experts forecast that wind turbines could wipe out the golden eagle completely, California has the highest population of Golden Eagles in world. According to one expert, there are around 2,400 golden eagles in California and every year, 80 of them are killed on wind farms. The other problem is that these chopping machines are killing Bats, which are also a protected animal. Obviously I’m against wind farms but thumbs up to solar panels

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