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Birds flying near a wind farm

Birds flying near a wind farm (Johnny Greig, iStockphoto)

STEM in Context

Are wind farms a threat to wildlife?

Chantelle Lafleur

Summary

Wind power is a growing source of electricity generation. But wind projects often affect local wildlife populations, and researchers are using environmental monitoring techniques to alleviate some of these impacts.

Many countries around the world use wind energy to generate electricity. Canada is one of them. In 2018, wind energy in Canada generated enough electricity to power 3.3 million homes

Generating electricity with wind energy has advantages. It has gotten cheaper over the years. It also cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions. That is because wind energy is an alternative to burning coal and other fossil fuels for energy. Both of these emit harmful pollutants when they are burned.

But wind energy projects can affect local wildlife. Researchers are working hard to reduce or resolve some of the negative impacts on organisms and their habitats.

How can wind energy projects impact wildlife?

A wind farm is a group of several wind turbines. It is an example of a wind energy project.

How Does a Wind Turbine Work?

The blades of a wind turbine are attached to a rotor. When the wind turns the blades, oppositely-charged magnets attached to the rotor rotate within a coil of copper wire. This generates electricity through electromagnetic induction.

Wind turbines have been linked to large numbers of bird and bat deaths. In the case of birds, most of the deaths happen when the birds crash into wind turbines. 

In the case of bats, some die when they hit the turbines. Others die from an effect called barotrauma. This happens when bats fly too close to the blades of a wind turbine. The movement of the blades can cause a drop in air pressure nearby. This drop in pressure can damage the bat's lungs, often resulting in death.

Scientists studied wind projects in Ontario for 10 years. They found that each wind turbine kills around 5 birds and 12 bats every year! There were 2 577 turbines in Ontario in 2018. That suggests 13 400 birds and 30 150 bats might have been killed by wind farms in Ontario that year.

Deaths are not the only problem. Wind farms have also been linked to harmful indirect impacts on local bird and bat populations. For example, building a wind farm can result in habitat loss. This can lead to wildlife being forced out of the area. Other indirect impacts include effects on migration patterns and other behavioural changes. Any of these can contribute to major population decline in different species.

Turbines and cleared land
Turbines need clear ground and roads around them (Source: grandriver via iStockphoto).

How are people working to minimize the impact of wind turbines on wildlife?

The wind power industry is aware of the impact that wind turbines have on bird and bat populations. Wind farm developers are required to follow a number of provincial and federal government rules and regulations when designing their projects. These rules help control where wind turbines are placed and how they are built. They also control how wind farms operate. The likely impacts on migration routes, habitats, and local species are also considered.

Developers, as well as government agencies, also monitor the ongoing environmental impacts of wind projects. The information they gather can help scientists understand how wind turbines affect biodiversity. This understanding can help reduce the risks future projects may have on wildlife.

Also, organizations such as the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) and the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative in the USA work to develop new ways to prevent deaths. These include ways to lower the sounds produced. For example, biologists have shown that bats are much more active when wind speeds are low (3). If wind turbines stayed still in low winds, a significant number of bat deaths could be avoided. This step would have only a small impact on power production.

Compared to other threats, the worldwide impact of wind projects on bird populations is still very small. Many studies show that more birds are killed by cats or collisions with windows than by wind projects. Research into the number and causes of bat deaths is ongoing.

Infographic which shows some of the main sources of bird mortality
Infographic which shows some of the main sources of bird mortality (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science).

 

Infographic - Text version

Cats kill between 210 and 3 700 million birds each year. Power lines kill approximately 175 million birds, farming 67 million birds, and windows 97 to 196 million birds. Cars and trucks are responsible for approximately 50 to 100 million birds. Things that kill the fewest number of birds include communication towers which kill approximately 6.8 million birds, aircraft which kill approximately 0.08 million birds, and wind turbines which kill approximately 0.02 to 0.57 million birds.

 

Wind power is becoming an important source of energy for Canadians. But like most other human activities, wind projects can also have negative impacts on the natural environment. Government, industry, and environmental groups are all working to ensure that our flying friends are protected as much as possible.

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Have you ever visited a wind farm? What was your impression of it?
  • How would you feel if you discovered a wind farm was being constructed near your home or school?
     
Connecting and Relating
  • Have you ever visited a wind farm? What was your impression of it?
  • How would you feel if you discovered a wind farm was being constructed near your home or school?
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Describe some concerns society may have regarding the wind farm industry.
  • Should society be concerned about the impact of wind farms on wildlife? Why or why not?
  • What are three things wind farm operators can do to minimize the impact of wind farms on wildlife?
  • If you could choose the source from which your electricity comes from, what would you choose? Explain your choice.
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Describe some concerns society may have regarding the wind farm industry.
  • Should society be concerned about the impact of wind farms on wildlife? Why or why not?
  • What are three things wind farm operators can do to minimize the impact of wind farms on wildlife?
  • If you could choose the source from which your electricity comes from, what would you choose? Explain your choice.
     
Exploring Concepts
  • How do wind turbines generate electricity?
  • How can wind farms affect animal populations?
  • Describe three indirect impacts on wildlife that may be linked to wind farms.
  • What types of groups are involved in protecting and monitoring bird and bat population health? Why?
     
Exploring Concepts
  • How do wind turbines generate electricity?
  • How can wind farms affect animal populations?
  • Describe three indirect impacts on wildlife that may be linked to wind farms.
  • What types of groups are involved in protecting and monitoring bird and bat population health? Why?
     
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Scientists are continually researching ways to reduce the impact of wind farming on wildlife. Suggest ideas or technology that should be researched to reduce the impact of wind farms on wildlife.
  • If you were a scientist, how would you set up an inquiry to investigate the number of birds or bats that are killed by a given wind turbine?
     
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Scientists are continually researching ways to reduce the impact of wind farming on wildlife. Suggest ideas or technology that should be researched to reduce the impact of wind farms on wildlife.
  • If you were a scientist, how would you set up an inquiry to investigate the number of birds or bats that are killed by a given wind turbine?
     
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article can be used for Earth & Environment, Biology, and Engineering & Technology to support teaching and learning related to electricity generation, wind power, populations and environmental monitoring. Concepts introduced include wind farms, electricity generation, barotrauma, populations and monitoring.
  • Before reading the article, teachers could have students complete an Admit Slip learning strategy. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Admit Slip learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • After reading the article, students could explore the positive and negative aspects of wind turbines and wind farms by completing a Pros & Cons Organizer learning strategy. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons Organizer reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • STSE issues related to wind farms could also be examined from different stakeholder perspectives, using an Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. Ready-to-use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Students could use the information presented in the following chart to create their own infographic about the major causes of bird mortalities: Bird Mortality. Teachers could use this Infographic Creator learning strategy to support teaching and learning about infographics.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article can be used for Earth & Environment, Biology, and Engineering & Technology to support teaching and learning related to electricity generation, wind power, populations and environmental monitoring. Concepts introduced include wind farms, electricity generation, barotrauma, populations and monitoring.
  • Before reading the article, teachers could have students complete an Admit Slip learning strategy. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Admit Slip learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • After reading the article, students could explore the positive and negative aspects of wind turbines and wind farms by completing a Pros & Cons Organizer learning strategy. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons Organizer reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • STSE issues related to wind farms could also be examined from different stakeholder perspectives, using an Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. Ready-to-use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Students could use the information presented in the following chart to create their own infographic about the major causes of bird mortalities: Bird Mortality. Teachers could use this Infographic Creator learning strategy to support teaching and learning about infographics.

Learn more

Canadian Wind Energy Association: Respecting Wildlife

A description of the work this association does to minimise the threat to wildlife from its members’ turbines.

National Wind Watch

Home page of a group opposed to large-scale wind farms.

Green Energy Futures: Birds, bats and wind turbines (2015)

A 4-minute podcast on this issue featuring interviews with scientists in Alberta.

9 leading causes of bird deaths in Canada (2013)

This article from CBC News shows cats are number 1 by a long way. Wind turbines were number 9 on the list that year.

Very large scale wind farms could heat up the area they are in (2018)

A Harvard professor suggests wind farms need a lot more room than projected. For example, if they were used to generate all US electricity they would cover ⅓ of the land there.

Environmental Impacts of Wind Power (2013)

This article from the Union of Concerned Scientists looks at wildlife impacts but also land use, human health concerns, and the effect on climate change from the power they generate. Also see their interview with the head of the American Wind Wildlife Institute.

References

Kingsley, A., & Whittam, B. (2007). Wind turbines and birds: a guidance document for environmental assessment. Canadian Wildlife Service.
 

Martin, C. M, Arnett, E. B., Stevens, R.D, Wallace, M. C. (2017) Reducing bat fatalities at wind facilities while improving the economic efficiency of operational mitigation. Journal of Mammalogy, 2(21), 3378-385. DOI: 10.1093/jmammal/gyx005

Chantelle Lafleur

Chantelle has a B.Sc in Life Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication. For a short time, she worked with the Let's Talk Science Outreach team at the National Office and loved being able to share her passion with others. Chantelle seeks out any opportunity there is to share cool science with other and she loves learning about new research, medical advancements and environmental issues.