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Homegrown Energy: Wind and Solar

Photo: Wind Energy Facility. Photograph credit: Paul Cryan, USGS.
Photo: Wind energy facility in the Northeastern United States. An unexpected number of dead bats began appearing beneath industrial-scale wind turbines in North America and Europe during the past 10 years. Photograph credit: Paul Cryan, USGS.

Wind and Solar Energy, Wildlife and Ecosystems- Wind power development is increasing significantly in the United States, with some plans calling for wind energy to provide 20 percent of the country’s total power by 2020. Across the United States, USGS scientists are gathering data on the ecological effects of wind energy with the aim of helping reduce the effects on wildlife and ecosystems while optimizing the use of wind energy.

Expansion of wind energy, while good for diversifying the United States’ energy portfolio, brings an unwanted side effect: increased bat and bird mortality at wind turbines. Wind facilities or wind turbines can affect birds, bats and other mammals, reptiles, and their habitats.

Bats and Wind Energy: Overview
Photo: Endangered Hawaiian Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus semotus). Photograph credit: Frank Bonaccorso, USGS.
Photo: Endangered Hawaiian Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus semotus). Photograph credit: Frank Bonaccorso, USGS.

Recent USGS and academic research revealed that bats are worth billions a year (from $3.7 to $53 billion a year) to agriculture because of the pest-control services these animals provide. Yet certain bat species are particularly susceptible to collisions with wind turbine blades, and bat mortality is the most widely documented ecological impact of wind energy development. Each year many thousands of bats die at wind turbines across North America, for reasons that are still unclear.  USGS scientists are actively seeking ways to understand and lessen the impacts on bats as wind energy development expands and the disease, white-nose syndrome, wreaks havoc on other populations of bats. The first step in doing so is to uncover the mechanisms of mortality, as well as the patterns of migration, roosting, and foraging behavior that may make tree-roosting bats particularly susceptible to harm from turbines.  

We are doing this by creating new applications of innovative technologies like employing radar to track flight patterns of bats; using low-light surveillance cameras to document bat-turbine encounters; and recording flight calls of bats and birds to determine the distribution of migrants in time and space.  Together, this information can be used to help reduce the harmful effects of wind energy on bats by providing information needed for better turbine design, operation, and placement.

California Condors and Siting Wind Facilities
Photo: California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) flies over the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Photograph credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

USGS scientists are helping managers understand how California condors use their habitat, gaining valuable information that will help inform not only which potential energy development sites are likely to have the least impact on condors but also which areas of Oregon might be most suitable for future reintroductions of this large, endangered bird.  Scientists are also creating models that predict impact of turbines on golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, northern harriers, and prairie falcons to provide information that helps guide the placement of future wind energy facilities in a way that assists the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in ensuring effective raptor conservation. This study is ongoing. Contact: Susan Haig.

Photo: California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) flies over the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Photograph credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Mapping Wind Energy and Assessing Its Impacts
Photo: wind energy site in Colorado. Photograph credit: Tasha Carr, USGS.
Photo: wind energy site in Colorado. Photograph credit: Tasha Carr, USGS.

USGS is actively mapping locations and extents of current and potential wind energy generating sites in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and has created a geospatial  database for wind turbine locations, a series that has now been published. USGS is also studying the land-use change associated with wind energy facilities. Not only do the turbines create surface disturbance on the landscape but so do the roads, transmission lines, substations, control stations, meteorological towers, and other structures associated with wind energy siting, generation, and transmission. This study will determine how topography, land use, turbine size, and the overall energy production capacity of the facility affect surface disturbance. This basic level of information is critical for many decisions and for future studies of direct and indirect wind energy impacts, and can help identify the most effective ways to reduce these impacts. 

This research, as well as other USGS activities such as the Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative, the Powell Center study group, and efforts in the Energy Resources Program focuses on developing and improving tools to assess the effects of wind energy and conventional energy from natural resources, economic, and social perspectives.  Our research places special emphasis on identifying areas with high conservation and restoration potential and areas with high development potential.  USGS-led assessments are underway for potential projects in southwestern Wyoming and in the Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau, where pressure for intensification of energy production on public lands is very high. This study is ongoing. Contacts: Tasha Carr, or Jay Diffendorfer.
Minimizing Conflict Between Eagle Conservation and Wind Energy
Photo: Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) located at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge. Photograph credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While there are benefits to wind energy development, each year many golden eagles, bald eagles, and other raptors are killed in wind turbines.  Because natural mortality is low for adult eagles, additional losses caused by humans are of concern for natural resource managers.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed guidelines for eagle permit regulations to allow some eagle “take” (harm), but with the understanding that industry will make all reasonable efforts to minimize impacts to eagles.  

USGS scientists Mark Fuller, Clint Boal, Mike Runge, Jim Nichols, and Zack Bowen are conducting research that will help support the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and energy industry efforts to reduce impacts to golden eagles from wind energy operations, including collision with the turbine blades, as well as disruption of the bird’s habitat, or disturbance from construction and operations. The research involves five goals that will greatly inform decisions about how to design, site, and manage wind farms so as to minimize impact to eagles:

  • develop a comprehensive survey and monitoring plan for eagles;
  • model golden eagle occurrence in the Western United States to identify important geographic areas and habitats for breeding, migration, and wintering;
  • compare patterns of eagle habitat use with maps of potential wind and other forms of energy development to identify threats and opportunities for conservation;
  • improve statistical methods to estimate mortality on wind farms; and develop an adaptive management framework for wind energy permitting with regard to the take of bald and golden eagles. Adaptive management simply means that as more scientific information becomes available, managers can adapt their management plans and activities accordingly.  Contacts: Sue Phillips, or Mike Runge.
Photo: Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) located at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge. Photograph credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Renewable Energy and Agassiz's Desert Tortoise
Photo: A male Agassiz's desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in a wind energy facility near Palm Springs, California. . Photograph credit: Jeff Lovich, USGS.
Photo: A male Agassiz's desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in a wind energy facility near Palm Springs, California. . Photograph credit: Jeff Lovich, USGS.

Large areas of the Desert Southwest have been developed for utility-scale renewable energy projects, including both wind and solar facilities. Many additional energy sites are planned, meaning the ecological footprint will grow with time. The Desert Southwest is an area of exceptional biodiversity, providing habitat for many sensitive species, including the federally protected Agassiz's desert tortoise.  USGS scientist Jeff Lovich has been researching the effects of utility-scale energy development and operation on desert wildlife, including the tortoise, for 20 years.  His publications represent some of the only peer-reviewed scientific publications available on the effects of wind energy development and operation on non-flying terrestrial wildlife. Lovich’s research shows that wind energy site operations sometimes contribute to the death of tortoises, but he has found few, if any, population-level impacts. At one wind energy site, tortoises have persisted for almost 30 years, enjoying relatively high annual survivorship compared to that of other populations during the same time frame. This study is ongoing. Contact: Jeff Lovich.

Seeing in the Dark: Imaging Bats at Wind Turbines
Photo: A portable radar captured this image of flying animals - mostly birds and some bats -- in September 2011 as they passed near a wind facility in Pennsylvania. The radar detected flying animals up to 0.87 miles away. Yellow dots mark an animal’s most recent location, and the trailing line of fading blue dots show the animal’s path over the previous 30 seconds. Photograph credit: USGS.
Photo: A portable radar captured this image of flying animals - mostly birds and some bats -- in September 2011 as they passed near a wind facility in Pennsylvania. The radar detected flying animals up to 0.87 miles away. Yellow dots mark an animal’s most recent location, and the trailing line of fading blue dots show the animal’s path over the previous 30 seconds. Photograph credit: USGS.

Certain bat species – tree-roosting bats in particular – are especially susceptible to collisions with wind turbines during autumn, but the reasons for these encounters remain unclear.  Wind turbines now reach higher than thirty-story buildings whereas the wingspans of affected bats are not much bigger than a spread human hand.  This presents a considerable scientific challenge for how to detect fast-moving bats high above the ground at night around operating wind turbines.

To meet this challenge and to better understand and assess the risk industrial wind turbines pose to bats, USGS scientists from Hawaii and Colorado are devising a way to directly observe bat occurrence and behavior at wind turbines using a video system composed of high-powered illuminators and near-infrared cameras. This new approach images the full rotor-swept areas of wind turbines for entire nights over long periods of time, and then uses advanced image-processing software to automatically find flying bats and birds in the copious amounts of recorded footage. The USGS project, launched in the summer of 2011 at wind energy sites in Hawaii and Pennsylvania, is the first field validation of near-infrared videography to nocturnally track and quantify target motion (bats and birds in this case) at distances greater than 100 meters (328 feet) under realistic operational conditions. This a significant step in developing a feasible method to enhance our understanding of how wind turbines affect bats and nocturnal migratory birds, with the ultimate goal of finding new ways to provide information for wind-energy development  expansion while reducing the harmful effects of this renewable energy source on wildlife. This study is ongoing. Contacts: Frank BonaccorsoMarcos Gorresen or Paul Cryan.

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Unbiased Estimates of Wildlife Fatalities as Wind Facilities
Scientists have found that wind turbines are causing fatalities of certain species of migratory insect-eating bats, although a March 2011 study in Science suggests that solutions to reduce the impacts of wind turbines on bats may be possible. Photo courtesy of Paul Cryan, USGS
Scientists have found that wind turbines are causing fatalities of certain species of migratory insect-eating bats, although a March 2011 study in Science suggests that solutions to reduce the impacts of wind turbines on bats may be possible. Photo credit: Paul Cryan, USGS

Wind energy sources may affect wildlife, either directly from collisions with the turbine blades or indirectly from auditory trauma, loss of habitat and altered migration routes. An important component to understanding – and eventually reducing – the effects of wind power development on wildlife is accurate and precise estimates of fatality. USGS biological statisticians Manuela Huso and Jim Nichols and colleagues are working to eliminate bias in estimating wildlife fatality at wind farms. Accurate, unbiased fatality estimates are critical to assessing strategies and are fundamental to understanding short-term and cumulative effects of wind power on wildlife populations. The projects will develop useful methods for natural resource management agencies, conservation organizations, and other stakeholders who need accurate and precise scientific information and efficient and cost-effective monitoring methods for understanding the effects of wind power development on wildlife. This study is ongoing. Contact Manuela Huso, or Jim Nichols.

Wind Energy and Prairie Chickens in the Southern Great Plains
Photo: Lesser priarie chicken.
Photo: A lesser prairie chicken. Photo credit: USFWS.

Across the southern great plains of the United States, lesser prairie chickens are in decline and are currently being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Wind energy development poses  another, newer pressure for this species, and  USGS scientists are creating models that will help relative to siting decisions and prairie-chicken habitat requirements. To create these models, USGS scientists use information about prairie chicken lek sites (sites where males gather to court and breed with females) in Kansas, along with information about environmental and human-related factors throughout the rest of this species’ range, to produce an index of habitat suitability for leks. These models will help inform managers’ decisions regarding where to place wind energy developments so as to minimize their impacts on threatened prairie chickens. This study is ongoing. Contact: Catherine Jarnevich.

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Photo: longtail duck (Clangula hyemalis). Photograph credit: USGS
Photo: longtail duck (Clangula hyemalis). Photograph credit: USGS.

Duck! Long-Tail Ducks Avoid Cape Wind Energy Project: Satellite tracking of long-tail ducks over three wintering seasons confirms that while they use the Nantucket Sound regularly in their daily movements, they did not use the area proposed for the Cape Wind Energy Project as a roosting site during the time frame of the study.

The U.S. Geological Survey research looked at one of the world’s largest populations of long-tail ducks and found that hundreds of thousands of these elusive birds engage in a bizarre 30-50 mile morning commute from Nantucket Sound to the Atlantic Ocean, returning each evening. Read the article >>

Image of Product: Wind Energy and Wildlife Research at the Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
 

Wind energy and wildlife research at the USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center - Read about innovative wind energy research occurring at this USGS research center where scientists are assisting public agencies and private industries with information to use in making sound decisions about wind energy. Fact Sheet >>

 

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