Saturday, January 13, 2024

Wind is an improvement for birds

One big gripe that environmental activists and conservatives like to bring up is that wind turbines kill birds. This leads to people trying to block wind turbine projects on the basis that they will cause more environmental harm than other forms of energy that could be made elsewhere (whether or not this is true is unproven, and is usually just an example of NIMBYism).

Wind has gotten a lot cheaper in the past decade or so, and as a result is becoming more viable. However, it turns out that the alternative of fossil fuels, in the form of oil-and-gas extraction, is actually worse for birds than building wind turbines.

Dr Katovich assumed, reasonably, that if wind turbines harmed bird populations, then the numbers seen in the Christmas Bird Count would drop in places where new turbines had been built. He combined bird population and species maps with the locations and construction dates of all wind turbines in the United States, with the exceptions of Alaska and Hawaii, between 2000 and 2020. He found that building turbines had no discernible effect on bird populations. That reassuring finding held even when he looked specifically at large birds like hawks, vultures and eagles that many people believe are particularly vulnerable to being struck.

But Dr Katovich did not confine his analysis to wind power alone. He also examined oil-and-gas extraction. Like wind power, this has boomed in America over the past couple of decades, with the rise of shale gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of rocks. Production rose from 37m cubic metres in 2007 to 740m cubic metres in 2020.

Comparing bird populations to the locations of new gas wells revealed an average 15% drop in bird numbers when new wells were drilled, probably due to a combination of noise, air pollution and the disturbance of rivers and ponds that many birds rely upon. When drilling happened in places designated by the National Audubon Society as “important bird areas”, bird numbers instead dropped by 25%. Such places are typically migration hubs, feeding grounds or breeding locations.

This is part of, in my opinion, a larger reality of the fact that good things are in fact good, and that bad things are in fact bad. Wind energy is good, solar energy is good, and oil-and-gas is bad. The long term effects of renewable energy far outweigh the costs of ugly solar panels or some other aesthetic or surface level concern.