Are wind turbines really good for the environment? The economics, as we know, is often deeply dubious. But in this week’s Spectator, Oxford biological lecturer Clive Hambler reveals another drawback: the slaughter inflicted on birds and bats caught in the blades.
Hambler argues that despite death tolls from numerous sources in various countries, many environmentalists are not being thorough with their questioning of renewable energy. In Britain, this argument isn't made much — but overseas, as Hambler says, they're realising the damage inflicted on nature:
'Every year in Spain alone — according to research by the conservation group SEO/Birdlife — between 6 and 18 million birds and bats are killed by wind farms. They kill roughly twice as many bats as birds. This breaks down as approximately 110–330 birds per turbine per year and 200–670 bats per year. And these figures may be conservative if you compare them to statistics published in December 2002 by the California Energy Commission: ‘In a summary of avian impacts at wind turbines by Benner et al (1993) bird deaths per turbine per year were as high as 309 in Germany and 895 in Sweden.’
Over at the New Statesman, Alex Hern has taken an assiduous look at Hambler’s article and questioned his use of these statistics, arguing they lack context. Comrade Hern notes that in the US nearly 100 million birds are killed annually by domestic/feral cats, 130 million by power lines and 97.6 to 976 million killed per year by collisions with plate glass windows. All of these figures stand up; see this referenced report by the US Department of Agriculture. However, they do nothing to detract from Hambler’s argument.
Firstly, one of the major killers, plate glass windows, have never been sold as an environmentally friendly product, nor have they been championed by eco-activists. Read James Delingpole over at Telegraph Blogs if you have any doubts of whether this is true for wind farms. Plus, plate glass windows and roads are quite essential — imagine a world without them! Whether wind farms fall into the same category is debatable, but I’d say for certain most folks would admit they are not an utterly essential utility. The comparison between windows and turbines is really rather illogical.
Secondly, for obvious reasons wind farms tend to be erected in far-flung places and require reels of power lines to hook them up to the National Grid. Therefore, Hern's argument that power lines also kill millions of birds again does not detract from Hambler’s view. In fact, it strengthens the argument against wind farms.
Thirdly, although the quantity of animals killed may not be extraordinary the quality certainly is. Clive Hambler’s expertise is in the preservation and extinction of species — hence his concern. As he notes in the original article, the deaths inflicted by turbines are worrying because they are adversely affecting rarer species, such as bats:
‘Bats are what is known as K-selected species: they reproduce very slowly, live a long time and are easy to wipe out. Having evolved with few predators — flying at night helps — bats did very well with this strategy until the modern world. This is why they are so heavily protected by so many conventions and regulations: the biggest threats to their survival are made by us.’
Environment friendliness is the raison d’etre of turbines manufacturers, yet their power generating machines are having a profound effect on ecosystems. Decide for yourself whether the negative affect on the animal population — however big or small it may be — is worth it. The deaths may not be in the same league as cats or windows, but they undeniably still exist. And in quite sobering numbers. Saying that we should not be bothered about a few more thousand bird and bat corpses is, I would humbly submit, a rather weak argument for the advocates of wind power.