Fact check: 5 things the AP missed in its recent coverage of wind energy

14 May 2013 by John Anderson John Anderson

We all plug things in, and that energy has to come from somewhere. Despite what a story on the Associated Press wire today would seem to suggest, wind power is the most environmentally benign source of utility-scale electricity, and a leading solution to climate change, the greatest threat to wildlife. AP writer Dina Cappiello interviewed AWEA and wind company wildlife experts at length, but left out virtually everything we told her. Here are the top five things her story left out:

1) American wind power is one of the most environmentally sound sources of energy. Wind power has less of an impact on the environment than the AP story states.

- No energy source – or really, any human activity, for that matter - is completely free of environmental impacts.  But, as a non-polluting energy source, wind energy is one of the most environmentally benign ways to generate electricity.

- The number of total bird and eagle fatalities due to wind turbines is actually much lower than the AP story reports. In reality, eagle collisions at wind farms are a very rare event: fewer than 2 percent of human-caused golden eagle deaths occur at modern wind farms, and there have been only a few bald eagle deaths in the history of the industry--far lower than from other causes including: lead poisoning, poisoning in general, electrocutions, collisions with vehicles, drowning in stock tanks, and illegal shootings.

- Based on preliminary analysis of data collected from more than 100 wind farms presented at the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative biennial research meeting in November 2012, it is estimated that approximately 200,000 birds collide with turbines annually at current installed wind energy capacity (60+ Gigawatts – enough to power the equivalent of over 15 million homes). This number pales in comparison to other sources like buildings (97-970 million), telecommunication towers (4-5 million), and oil and waste water pits at oil and gas production fields (2-3 million), among other causes of mortality.

2) The wind energy industry has a long history of proactively seeking to reduce its impact on the environment.

- For years, the wind energy industry has helped establish collaborative efforts with agencies and conservation groups like the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative and AWWI to advance research to better avoid and mitigate the industry’s impacts on the environment.

- The guidelines for wind energy and wildlife that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized are the most comprehensive set of voluntary measures developed for any industry, and particularly one with as low impacts as the wind industry. These guidelines were informed by more than three years of effort by federal agencies, state wildlife officials, eNGOs, native tribes, and the industry.

3) Wind energy is one of the key solutions available today to mitigate climate change, which the Fish and Wildlife Service, environmental groups and others all agree is the biggest threat to wildlife. Wind power reduces enormous amounts of carbon emissions annually.

- The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that climate change may contribute to the extinction of 20-30 percent of all species by 2030.

- The State of the Birds: 2010 Report on Climate Change findings include:

          - Birds in every terrestrial and aquatic habitat will be affected by climate change, although individual species in each habitat are likely to respond differently.
          - Across all habitats, species of conservation concern showed higher levels of vulnerability to climate change than species not threatened by other factors.  Vulnerability to climate change may hasten declines or prevent recovery.

- Because it reduces carbon emissions, wind power is a major part of the solution to climate change.  On average, a single wind turbine will avoid over 3,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of taking 500 cars off the road.

- Since wind power’s fuel is “free,” utility system operators use available wind power first, displacing electricity from the most expensive power plants, which are also typically the most polluting.

4) The AP story fails to accurately portray the eagle “take” permit proposed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

- The eagle “take” permit is not a wholesale license to kill eagles, nor is it specifically designed for the wind industry, but rather is available for all human activities that cause eagle deaths in pursuit of otherwise lawful activities.

- In exchange for agreeing to monitoring and various conservation measures, a company can get some degree of legal and financial certainty, which is essential to any business.

- With respect to the 30-year duration of the proposed permit, there is already precedence for life-of-project permits under the Endangered Species Act, which is viewed as the “gold standard” for wildlife conservation law and covers species that are by definition more at risk than eagles.

- Having long-term permits is good from resource management standpoint as it allows for a longer term impact analysis, is good from a business certainty standpoint, and good for an agency that is resource constrained and cannot afford to spend precious staff hours in a never-ending cycle of paperwork processing.

- The ability to obtain a permit is only possible under carefully controlled conditions, including an evaluation of the risk to eagles, implementation of steps to reduce that risk and mitigation and compensation in the event of a take. This high standard puts significant pressure on wind farm owners and operators to minimize their impacts to the greatest extent practicable.  

5) The choice is not between wind energy and nothing. In order to have a functioning society we need have to have electricity to power our homes, schools and businesses. The AP story fails to acknowledge this reality.  

- Based on the cumulative 60 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity installed through 2012, U.S. wind energy will avoid 95.9 million tons of CO2 annually, or roughly 4.2 percent of CO2 emissions from the entire power sector—equivalent to taking 17.5 million cars off the road.  It will also avoid the consumption of 36.6 billion gallons of water annually.

- Wind power has a low environmental impact, reduces carbon emissions and provides a significant source of energy.

- In a 2009 qualitative analysis done for the State of New York by Pandion Systems (now Normandeau Associates), it was shown that wind energy has the lowest impact of any of the energy technologies studied when full life-cycle impacts related to resource extraction, fuel transportation, construction, power generation and decommissioning were taken into consideration.

Related articles:

Fact check: More misinformation from Bryce on wind and birds, March 25, 2013
Fact check: Spectator (U.K.) overlooks facts on wind power and wildlife, January 15, 2013
Fact check: FOX News article fails to put wind development in context, January 2, 2013
Fact check: CFACT's Driessen wildly off base on bird claims, December 24, 2012
118 sportsmen's and conservation groups urge Congress to extend wind tax credits, December 6, 2012
Wind-wildlife meeting highlights wind industry's proactive approach, December 3, 2012
Fact check: Voice of America article on wind and birds lacks context, November 2, 2012
Sage-grouse collaborative to fund two wind-related studies, August 13, 2012
Fact check: Wired story bypasses wind industry's efforts on bats, July 10, 2012
Opinion: Wind energy threat to eagles relatively low, June 26, 2012
Fact check: Bond bashes wind, mangles facts [UPDATED], June 19, 2012
American Wind Wildlife Institute releases white paper on eagles and wind power, May 25, 2012
Already following federal bird guidelines, wind co. says, March 29, 2012
Fact check: Bryce missteps on wind and birds, March 8, 2012
Colorado collaboration: Wind companies, conservation groups agree on wildlife best practices, February 6, 2012
The Fish & Wildlife Eagle Permit Rule: Our perspective, January 10, 2012
Wind power's impact on birds: modest, December 15, 2011
Bird fatalities at Laurel Mountain substation, November 9, 2011
Birds and wind: Bad news leads, good news in weeds, August 29, 2011
Fact check: Fox News off base on bird collisions, August 19, 2011
News story draws questionable conclusions from eagle collisions with old turbines, June 6, 2011
WINDPOWER report: Whooping cranes may avoid wind farms, more research ahead, May 25, 2011
Wind developer launches intensive avian monitoring program, May 23, 2011
AWEA files comments on "unworkable" U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service guidelines, May 19, 2011
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, AWEA, wind developers sign agreement to promote endangered species conservation, April 20, 2011
Wind industry backs research on bat concerns including White-Nose Syndrome, April 1, 2011
Wind turbine bird threat modest, January 18, 2011
Editorial: How serious is threat to birds?, January 5, 2011
Wind energy and birds: No double standard, September 9, 2009
Wind-wildlife group names first president, February 24, 2009