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RENEWABLE ENERGY INDUSTRY ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS

By Andrew Chapman - 15/11/03

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Karl Mallon of the Australian Wind Energy Association, on 11 November 2003, suggests that wind farm bird kills are minimal and because birds are killed in other ways we shouldn’t be overly concerned about wind turbine kills.  Bird kills at wind farms are in fact significant and this is particularly relevant because wind power companies market themselves as providing “green energy”.  This image, of their own creation and naively fostered by others, should not exempt them from the normal level of environmental scrutiny and compliance applied to industry.  Company boards, investors and consumers alike want to be sure that their expectations of social and environmental responsibility are met and not just by ticking boxes on paper.  It is therefore important that the impact of wind farms on the environment, particularly wildlife, be conveyed so people have the opportunity to make informed social and environmentally conscious investment decisions.

 

The impact of wind farms on wildlife is worth mention as the wind industry well knows there have been some disastrous consequences for wildlife.  The United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the Altamont Pass wind farm in California, constructed around 1970, kills 300 eagles, hawks, kites and other raptors each year and of these 60 are Golden Eagles.  It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the magnitude of bird kills at wind farms was discovered and this was because monitoring of impact on birds had generally been poor and removal of carcasses by scavengers meant few observations were made of kills.  It is standard practice to determine impact by looking at bird kill rates per turbine.  The US Fish and Wildlife Services gives bird kill rate estimates in Europe of up to 37 birds/turbine/year and bird kill estimates in USA at an average of 2.19 birds/turbine/year with raptor kill rates at an average of 0.033 raptors/turbine/year.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service suggest these figures may be a considerable underestimate.

 

The Australian Wind Energy Association’s response to the Altamont raptor kills is “In those days obligations on development were far looser than they are today, particularly in Australia where the potential impact of any wind farm development is scrutinised by regulatory authorities including Environment Australia at the Commonwealth level.  Besides this, such a concentration of eagles found at Altamont does not occur anywhere in Australia and neither is the geography comparable.”

 

Research by J. Winkleman has shown that resident birds could be affected for distances of between 250-500 metres from turbines with disturbance causing between a 60% and 95% decline in bird usage close to the turbines and that 1.0 megawatt turbines affect larger water birds such as ducks and swans for up to 800 metres.  In Europe the consequence of bird avoidance behaviour is considered even more significant than the bird kills.

 

The Australian Wind Energy Association says the “The U. K. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds supports wind energy” but on 15 August 2003 Peter Exley of the RSPB had this to say about wind farms.

 

"the RSPB recognises that inappropriately sited wind farms can cause problems for birds.  It is precisely because of this that since 1998 the society has objected to 26 wind farm proposals (on and offshore) and has raised concerns about a further 29.  The RSPB has a partnership with Scottish and Southern Energy plc (SSE) promoting a renewable energy product called RSPB Energy.  The income from this is not related to the amount of wind-derived energy. The great majority of the energy comes from hydro schemes.  RSPB Energy would still operate if there were no wind farms at all.

 

The majority of the money we receive from SSE is used to acquire land for nature reserves to compensate for habitats that are being lost to climate change.  The remainder funds a handful of small-scale projects generating renewable energy on RSPB reserves, for example solar panels to heat water.  These have both a practical and a demonstration value.

 

The RSPB strongly supports the sustainable development of wind power and other forms of renewable energy as a means of helping to tackle climate change, which we regard as the biggest long-term threat to the environment.  The available evidence, from the UK and elsewhere, suggests that wind farms that are appropriately sited do not pose a significant hazard for birds.  The RSPB will, and does, object to development proposals, including wind farms, that threaten important birds and their habitats."

 

Perhaps the Australian Wind Energy Association should let groups who are genuinely interested in nature conservation speak for themselves.

 

When it was discovered that wind farms in USA were killing Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) it was thought that in Australia Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila Audax) would also be susceptible since the two species are closely related.   I recently received the following information from members of the Eaglehawk Conservation Group in South Australia about the Starfish Hill wind farm, a facility developed by Starfish Hill Wind Farm Pty Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tarong Energy, based in Queensland.

 

·          On 22 September 2003 the group said a Wedge-tailed Eagle had been killed at the Starfish Hill wind farm.  This kill occurred before it was officially opened by Premier Mike Rann on Saturday 4 October 03.

 

·          During the first week in October 2003 a second eagle was found dead under one of the turbines by the Tarong Energy Site Manager.

 

At least four months after the first turbine commenced operating and even after the last kill there was no official bird kill monitoring procedure in place.  These two eagle kills are known only because members of the public have stumbled across them.

 

There is now enough information to compare the environmental performance of the wind farms of Starfish Hill and Altamont.  Starfish Hill has 23 turbines and the turbines have killed 2 eagles within a 4 months period which extrapolates to 6 per year giving a kill rate of 0.26 raptors/turbine/year.  At Altamont where there are 6,700 turbines 300 raptors are killed per year the kill rate is 0.045 raptors/turbine/year.  The figures show the Starfish Hill turbines to be nearly six times more lethal on raptors than Altamont.  If the impacts on the genus Aquila are compared then Starfish Hill is nearly 30 times worse than Altamont.  This exercise reveals that the environmental performance of the Starfish Hill wind farm is worse than the worst wind farm in the world for killing raptors.  For other bird groups are we also to experience the high kill rates (37birds/turbine/year) found in Europe?

 

Evaluations of the bird kills at Altamont suggested that the small, 18 metre diameter rotor, turbines rotating a high speed, 60 revolutions per minute, were a major contributor.  It has previously been suggested that the larger (70 metre diameter rotor) rotating at the lower speed (30 revolutions per minute) being used in Australia would cause less problem for birds.  Whilst the rotational speed of the larger turbines is less, the blade speed is a more important criteria for birds, particularly raptors, because they cannot readily detect movement across their path as they approach the object.  A simple calculation reveals that the larger turbines, although rotating at half the speed of the smaller models, have double the tip speed.  That is there is much more swept area that birds cannot readily detect, possibly accounting for the high fatality rate for raptors at Starfish Hill.

 

In South Gippsland, at Bald Hills, a 52 turbine wind farm is being proposed by Wind Power Pty Ltd.  The site is within the Tarwin Valley which is flat to undulating country with farms containing numerous native plant shelterbelts, remnant vegetation and large dams.  There are two relatively small but important conservation Reserves that contain ridges, remnant vegetation and wetlands.  The ridges and hills in the reserves and across the farms are used by a wide variety of raptors for soaring and they hunt over the farms and in the Reserves and the wetland areas are used by a large number and variety of water birds.  In addition there are many species of resident birds living in the Reserves and across the farmlands.  Migratory bird species pass through as they travel between various areas of Australia and birds that migrate from Siberia, Mongolia, Alaska and New Zealand also move through the area. 

 

The area has a recent history of careful land management and good conservation practice.  Commencing in 1978 Shire Councillors, farmers, numerous wildlife conservation organisations including the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Fisheries and Wildlife Division worked together to secure the Bald Hills and King’s Flat Reserves and develop a major wetland for in the Bald Hills Reserve for waterbird conservation.

 

In 1982 the Fisheries and Wildlife Division wrote that in creating the Bald Hills wetland it would be “a wetland of great importance to a wide range of waterbirds.  The location is on the flyway used by many species moving between eastern and western Victoria and will attract many birds as it will be one of the few wetlands in this region.”  And “The proposed wetland is close to the Tarwin River and Anderson Inlet; both important feeding grounds for water birds and will create a safe roosting and breeding site, at present, are very scarce in this region.”

 

The Australian Bird Atlas’ records 280 species of birds for the 1degree grid block covering Bald Hills.

 

At Bald Hills, Wind Power Pty Ltd propose to construct 52 turbines, more than twice the number at Starfish Hill, with a pylon height of 65 metres and rotor diameter of 82 metres-a similar configuration to Starfish Hill.  They will be approximately 110 metres from the ground to the tip of the rotor at its highest point and the maximum power output will be 2.0 megawatt/turbine.   Wind Power proposes to place turbines close to and between the three main conservation reserves in the area.

 

Wind Power’s Environmental Effects Statement for the proposed Bald Hills Wind Farm uses a brief and inadequate level of survey and dismisses the impact on threatened species using terms like, “only a handful of listed migratory species occurs on the wind farm site”.  It does not give an accurate picture of migratory species or the presence of raptors, waterbirds or bats nor the risk to those animals.  It does however refer to Spine-tailed Swift migration and readily accepts that some would be killed even though these birds are protected by a treaty between Australia and Japan.  The EES survey work does not include the fauna using the Reserves nor does it assess the impact on them even though they would be within the influence of turbines.

 

The value of these Reserves is identified in the Department of Sustainability’s “Biodiversity Action Planning for Gippsland Bioregion, Tarwin/Powlett Zone”, Jan 2003 Draft that refers to the Bald Hills Wetland Reserve as a “Biodiversity Asset” of “National Significance”.  The Bioregional Conservation Status of the Bald Hills Reserve is that it contains what is now “Depleted” and the Kings Flat Reserve contains what is “Endangered”.

 

It is clear that the wind farm would be killing particularly vulnerable species of birds on an ongoing regular basis until that species is locally eliminated or if replenished the wider population would suffer reduction.  The influence of wind turbines placed so close to the Reserves would mean that some birds will avoid using them even though their significance is well documented.

 

The US Fish and Wildlife Service have produced the most recent comprehensive document “Interim Guidelines to Avoid and Minimize Wildlife Impacts From Wind Turbines, 3 May 2003”, follows the examination by scientists of bird kills and disruption to bird habitat and formulated using information from the worldwide scientific community.  It contains a series of recommendations for the siting of wind energy facilities that include the following:

 

·          Avoid placing turbines in documented locations of protected species,

·          Avoid locating turbines in known local bird migration paths or in areas where birds are highly concentrated.  Examples of high concentration areas for birds are wetlands, State refuges, private duck clubs, staging areas, rookeries, roosts and riparian areas alongside streams.  Avoid daily movement flyways (eg. between roosting and feeding areas),

·          Avoid placing turbines near known bat hibernation, breeding, and maternity/nursery colonies,

·          Configure turbine locations to avoid areas or features of the landscape known to attract raptors (hawks, falcons, eagles, owls),

·          Configure turbine arrays to avoid potential avian mortality where feasible.  For example, group turbines rather than spreading them widely, and orient rows of turbines parallel to known bird movements, thereby decreasing the potential for bird strikes.  Implement stormwater management practices that do not create an attraction for birds, and maintain contiguous habitat for area-sensitive species,

·          Avoid fragmenting large, contiguous tracts of wildlife habitat.  Where practical, place turbines on lands already altered or cultivated and away from areas of intact and healthy native habitats.

 

When applying these criteria to the proposed Bald Hills wind farm it is hard to imagine how a project could get this far in planning and yet fail so conclusively on so many of the criteria established to minimise bird and bat kills and habitat degradation.  The consequence of ignoring these principles can only be a high level of mortality for important and protected species as well as more common ones.  The cumulative impact of killing fauna and destroying habitat is already devastating some species as can be seen by reading the list of species in Australia now regarded as extinct or rare and endangered.

 

Wind farms depend on subsidy and when the subsidy goes so will the turbines, except for the large immoveable heavily reinforced concrete foundation blocks left scattered across farms to remind everyone of this foolish folly.  In the meantime any wind farms constructed would contribute to an ongoing destruction of our native birds.

 

Planning is intended to be driven by a strategic analysis however again and again it comes down to a project by project basis as developers bring forward specific proposals for specific parcels of land and strategic arguments are put forward for that project.  Strategic planning is intended to be a method of ensuring that cost-effective environmentally sustainable options are pursued, however the concerns about the environmental impact of a wide range of project are not being satisfactorily addressed through the planning process.   While Governments espouse the virtues of their environmental assessments as being “independent and transparent”, the public have seen enough of the process that they now not only lack confidence in the planning process but are cynical about the planning system.

 

Wind energy is second hand solar energy-that is the wind is derived from the sun heating the earth’s surface at different rates and times to cause surface air movements.  During this process a considerable amount of the energy from solar radiation is lost to other energy sinks so it makes sense to capture solar radiation in the first instance.  Using solar radiation to heat hot water systems and generate electricity, as has been done on house roofs throughout Australia for many years, results in minimal environmental impact that can at least be monitored by the consumer.  Australia is a world leader in developing solar energy technology whereas wind power technology and equipment is imported.

 

A contributor to global warming is the result of changes to the earth’s surface that is the widespread removal of vegetative cover in areas critical to climate such as throughout dryer areas of Australia and wet tropics of South East Asia and the replacement, in urbanised areas, with increased expanses of hard surfaces.  Research in Japan has attributed the dense urbanisation of Tokyo to a significant change in their climate.  Absorption and capture of solar radiation by solar hot water services and photo-electric cells will not only reduce greenhouse gas production but also has the potential to reduce the effectiveness of the main atmospheric warming contributor- solar radiation.

 

Clearly there are negative environmental impacts from wind farms and they do not deserve the label “green”.  The use of this misleading promotional jargon should be stopped.  Furthermore the industry would have to do a lot more to demonstrate that its behaviour was environmentally responsible.  Given the environmental impact of wind farms, particularly compared to solar technology with its economic benefits to Australia, the Federal and State Governments would do well to shift their attention to fostering the solar energy industry.  Ancient Egyptian law stated ‘Whoever kills an ibis or a hawk, whether wilfully or accidentally must necessarily be put to death’.  Whilst we have far more liberal environmental laws their compliance is frequently flaunted to the detriment of flora and fauna.  We do however have trade practices legislation to prevent companies from “passing off’ products under false pretence.

 

The dominant factor for practical changes will be market forces and these need to be brought to bear.  The public at large is currently subsidising impractical wind energy projects, excessive and inefficient electricity users and more effort should now be focused on appropriate commercial arrangements to prevent this happening.  Although we already have varied electricity tariffs, peak and off-peak water heating, to extend this type of arrangement would discourage waste, excessive use and provide more incentive, at the household level, to employ supplementary energy alternatives such as solar water heating and power generation.

 

 

Andrew is a Consulting Engineer with a private practice who has held senior positions in leading Australian engineering and environmental consultancies.   He has provided engineering and environmental services to major corporations in Japan, South East Asia and throughout Australia.  He served on the Victorian Government’s Conservation Advisory Committee and over 11 years Chaired or was member of panels appointed to conduct hearings under the Victorian Government’s Planning and Environment and Environment Effects Acts

 

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