Guest post by Juliet Walker
Former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown’s objection to a proposed wind farm in Tasmania due to the toll on bird life and visual pollution will hopefully bring to the fore an issue that has been steadfastly ignored by the mainstream media. Despite growing opposition to wind farms around the world from prominent environmentalists , wildlife groups , and concerned citizens, many people naively believe the simplistic fairytale about the benefits of wind farms. Typical of the low resolution thinking that underpins the climate change issue generally, and the cartoonish framing of renewable energy as a virtue and a necessity to save us from the ravages of ‘climate change’, the public simply has not been exposed to a mature, rational discussion about whether the costs – environmental, economic and social – outweigh the supposed benefits. Sure, wind is clean, wind is renewable. It doesn’t follow that the industrial machines that are the means of harnessing the wind are clean, renewable or in any way ‘good’ for the environment or for people, both broadly or at specific sites. At the very least, the negatives should be being discussed as openly and honestly as the positives are being pushed.
Mr Brown’s public opposition to the wind farm had him being attacked from all sides as a NIMBY hypocrite, given his prior support for renewable energy and his protests against the Adani coal mine. The more generous claimed he was just ‘misinformed’, bringing forth an online flood of shoddy arguments and statistics and links to ‘scientific studies’ to defend wind farms against the mass slaughter they are inflicting on wildlife.
A commonly cited paper is The Avian and Wildlife Costs of Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power from the Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences (vol. 9, no. 4, December 2012, 255-278. The author notes that “earlier literature reviews of 616 studies on wind energy and avian mortality found that every single one drew a negative connection between wind energy and the natural environment (Sovacool 2009)”. He then goes on to make a case for wind farms but does so using deeply flawed logic & methods. The paper compares direct on-site impacts (ie. actual bird fatalities from impacts with wind turbines & power lines), with the on-site fatalities of birds from collisions with nuclear cooling towers & power lines PLUS the indirect up and downstream impacts from the entire coal & uranium fuel cycle such as mining, habitat destruction & combustion. Thus the paper calculates wind farms killed 46,000 birds in the US in 2009, nuclear power plants killed 460,000 and fossil-fuelled power plants 24 million! This is equivalent to a per gigawatt hour fatality rate of 0.27, 0.6 and 9.4 respectively.
While it could be argued that the impacts of fuel extraction do not apply to wind farms because wind is the ‘fuel’, the paper neglects to include all the mining, infrastructure, manufacturing, and habitat destruction involved in creating wind turbines and wind farms which, just as for coal & nuclear, have indirect impacts on birds. Expansion of wind farms means the material for many more slaying machines needs to be mined, and much more land is needed to generate electricity. Due to the low energy density of wind power, 40-50 times the land area of coal and 90-100 times that of gas, is required.
The paper also includes in the fossil fuel tally the highly contestable, unproven and ill-defined impacts of ‘climate change’.
“For fossil-fuelled power stations, the most significant fatalities come from climate change, which is altering weather patterns and destroying habitats that birds depend on”.
This is a completely unsupported assertion. In fact, the IPCC’s AR5 report stated that:
“There is VERY LOW confidence that observed species extinctions can be attributed to recent warming, owing to the VERY LOW fraction of extinctions that [are] ascribed to climate change & TENUOUS NATURE of most attributions”
The paper goes on to say:
“Looking at the mid-range scenarios in climate change expected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they projected that 15% to 37% of all species of birds could be extinct by 2050. These numbers, too, can be tentatively quantified into 9.16 deaths per GWh from oil, natural gas, and coal-firedpower stations.”
‘Tentatively’ indeed. If observed species extinctions cannot be attributed to climate change in the present, how is it possible to attribute future extinctions to poorly defined and unproven ‘climate change’? The author does state that “calculating the relationship between avian fatalities and climate change is admittedly simplistic”. Unfortunately, this is not the message that uncritical or ideologically blinded readers take from this paper. The astonishing 24 million bird fatalities blamed on fossil fuels changes dramatically when ‘climate change’ is taken out of the equation. Even when mining impacts are included in the fossil fuel tally but not the wind farm tally, wind farms can be seen to have a higher fatality rate of 0.269 GwH, compared to 0.2 for fossil fuel energy.
The paper’s conclusion that wind farms have a far lower avian fatality rate per gigawatt hour than coal or nuclear energy sources makes another wrong assumption: that “the wider use of wind energy can save wildlife and birds as it displaces these more harmful sources of electricity”. This neglects to recognise that all wind farms require back up energy, which is usually fossil fuel or nuclear energy. To neatly divide the environmental impacts between wind and other energy sources is completely disingenuous. In fact, recent studies show that fossil fuel demand increases as renewable energy expands. To replace fossil fuel energy and nuclear entirely with wind (and/or solar) farms would require battery backup, the indirect impacts of which would also need to be factored into the fuel cycle impacts on habitats, if an apples to apples comparison is to be made
James Hansen, arguably the most well known global warming alarmist, stated in 2016 that:
“The notion that renewable energies & batteries alone will provide all needed energy is fantastical. It’s also a grotesque idea, because of the staggering environmental pollution from mining & material disposal, if all energy was derived from renewables & batteries”
Finally, the paper goes on to make the most specious argument of all: vastly more birds are killed by transmission lines, communications towers, cars, building windows and cats, concluding that “the impacts of wind turbines are therefore negligible compared to other sources of avian mortality”. This empty argument is repeated over and over online by the Twitterati , activists, academics and the media yet the conclusion is a ludicrous non sequitur! None of the other causes of bird fatalities are going away, irrespective of the type of energy we use! It is nonsensical to argue that because more deaths are already caused by other unrelated factors, additional fatalities are inconsequential, particularly considering the particular species of birds that are affected by wind farms, a point the author does acknowledge. Cats don’t kill eagles. It is like arguing that because we already cut down millions of trees, it doesn’t matter if we raze a National Park! Because we already catch a lot of fish, killing more fish on the Great Barrier Reef is not an issue. Because we already have large environmental impacts, creating additional environmental impacts elsewhere through new activities is inconsequential. Ridiculous.
To his credit, the author acknowledges ‘a number of salient limitations in the paper, stating that “the role of climate change on bird extinctions, although indeed worrying, is not conclusive and as such should be approached with extreme caution”. He also states that “these findings are not a license for wind turbines to kill birds, for wind farms to be sited recklessly, or for research to cease on better designs that make wind energy less destructive to wildlife and its habitat.”
It is a shame that those limitations (and the bulk of studies that show wind farms do indeed pose a serious threat to birds and bats) are ignored by those with an agenda, and that dubious, back of the envelope calculations and poorly reasoned justifications continue to provide ammunition for countless climate change activists and academics as ‘evidence’ that millions of bird deaths at wind farms are insignificant.