Clean Energy

Good News for Birds (and Wind Power)

Something as simple as black paint may reduce avian mortalities from wind power.


Birds have been a problem for wind power. Wind turbines, whatever their other merits, have the tendency to kill birds, and possibly bats. This has been a longstanding problem, particularly because those areas best for wind power are often important for birds, particularly those species that tend to ride on wind currents.

The bird problem has meant that environmental organizations have been inconsistent advocates of wind power, endorsing the such carbon-free power in the abstract, but often opposing particular wind power development proposals. I wrote about this problem over twenty years ago in The Weekly Standard, and it has not gone away.

New research suggests that one solution to the bird problem is rather simple: Painting one blade black dramatically reduces bird kills by wind turbines–70 percent in one location under study. This is an important development because the effect appears quite large, and it's a relatively inexpensive fix. Assuming this research pans out, there is a cheap way to address the biggest environmental drawback of wind power, and that's a big deal.

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  1. Windmills have little to do with energy or the environment, they are singularly designed to produce tax credits. Tree huggers think they do wonderful things, but not for the power grid. Every megawatt of wind power has to be backed up by same amount of gas turbine power. When the wind is blowing hard, the power often has to be given away as the grid operators have gas turbine power at the ready, which means huge amount of gas is burned just to keep a generator at idle, ready to go. Another financial scam disguised as ‘renewable’ energy.

    1. But when you consider that white working class Americans consider the elimination of birds and bats, which are almost as filthy and lazy as immigrants (how far would they go without all the free thermals?) a feature, not a bug, the whole green energy thing is kind of a wash.

    2. “Every megawatt of wind power has to be backed up by same amount of gas turbine power. ”

      More accurate statement: “Every megawatt of wind power has to be backed up by same amount of **dispatchable** power.”

      1)Turbines aren’t the only dispatchable power – around here, for example, if the wind is blowing we can keep water above the hydro dam for later use, instead of using that water early in the year, running out in late summer, and having to burn coal.
      2)When you are using wind, and have a dispatchable turbine on standby, you are still not making CO2 until you spool up the turbine.

      Admittedly, many environmentalists oversell wind and solar. But their value isn’t zero, either.

      1. Depends on how fast you need to be able to supply the power. Much of the time I believe you’d at least have the turbines idling.

        The point, though, is if you’re looking at the economics of a power source, if it is unreliable enough to require 100% backup by some other power source, you have to count the cost of that backup as part of the unreliable source’s cost.

        And, while the grid can absorb a certain amount of unscheduled power, that amount is quite limited. We don’t have half empty pumped storage facilities all over the place.

        All of which raises the question of why you don’t just go with 100% scheduled power, and forget about the unreliable stuff.

        1. “All of which raises the question of why you don’t just go with 100% scheduled power, and forget about the unreliable stuff.”

          Because ‘the unreliable stuff’, AKA wind and solar, doesn’t use up resources that are scarce – water behind the dam – or have externalities like CO2.

          They have their own externalities :-). Making a grid run is a complex engineering problem, with complex tradeoffs like most engineering problems. And unfortunately much of the analysis on both side is done at the twitter level of sophistication.

          Writ small, look at off grid cabins. You can mix solar, small scale wind, small scale hydro, and diesel/gas/propane generators. Which is optimal … it depends on the details. The larger grid is the same, but with a lot more complexity.

          1. That’s why I’m a nuclear booster: Nuclear fuel is sufficient to out last the habitability of the Earth, there will still be plenty of it when the Sun swells up and burns the Earth up billions of years from now. It’s at least as “reliable” as geothermal power, which is after all just indirect nuclear power anyway.

            Between that, and solar power satellites, (Which Musk’s “Starship” should render economic.) we should be able to abandon fossil fuels within a generation.

            But in no rational future is wind power a significant source of energy outside some limited places where the wind blows basically all the time. It’s a local power source, not global.

            1. “But in no rational future is wind power a significant source of energy outside some limited places where the wind blows basically all the time”

              You’ll never guess where wind farms are usually sited 🙂

              IIRC you’re in North Carolina or something like that? Out here in the west, wind isn’t a rare thing.

              The engineering details of every specific project matter. Assuming they are all wise or unwise are both paths to bad decisions.

            2. I, too, would like to see more nuclear power.

              But intermittent generation can also be augmented with energy storage. While we haven’t reached the point at which it’s economical to create batteries for large scale energy storage, within the next few years we’ll have a lot of electric-car batteries that are no longer suitable for a car, but that can still hold a significant amount of energy. Plus, there are other methods, like using surplus power to lift something heavy and then using the stored potential energy to generate power when it descends.

              1. Yes, and power sources that can run 24/7 will pretty much always beat power sources that require expensive storage on top of their own costs.

  2. Whether it works or not is unlikely to affect opposition to wind farms. Most of the opposition seems to be largely pretextural Luddieism or NIMBYism dressed up in faux environmental issues.

    1. The study excluded 2/3rds of the birds that hit the control tower and the bird count is about 10. They excluded Willow Ptarmigans because they have seen them hit the base of the tower.

      Unsurprisingly, including them in the study makes the effect not statistically significant. Even with them excluded, the statistical significance is low. In fact there is a similar amount of variation from year to year with the control turbine.

      1. Hmmmm, not really surprised. If a study makes the paper, it seems to be junk most of the time.

      2. Turbines kill a significant number of Bald Eagles because they don’t realize that the tips of those blades are going 200+ MPH.

        1. Do you have a cite?

          1. “On January 17, 2017, the number of bald eagles that can be killed by wind farm permit holders will increase from the current legal number of 1,100 to 4,200—almost a quadrupling.”


          2. Ed, all of those are about a rule, not the actual numbers.

            Also, read the one non-partisan link you posted:

            It’s unclear what toll wind energy companies are having on eagle populations, although Ashe said as many 500 golden eagles a year are killed by collisions with wind towers, power lines, buildings, cars and trucks. Thousands more are killed by gunshots and poisonings.

            1. We never got any hard numbers on how many were killed by DDT, either. And “thousands” aren’t being shot or poisoned –the Feds prosecute that sort of stuff.

  3. Only touts profit from windmills.

    Has anyone heard Mr. and Mrs. Kettle, Franklin and Phoebe, bragging on their new Cadillac purchased with the profits from their windmill, and that they will buy another windmill next years?

    Only touts profit from windmills. Look to California, which economy is declining to where in might be sustained by windmills and Unicorn fharts.

  4. The big problem with windmills involves noise and its harm to humans.

    1. And destabilizing the power grid, but that doesn’t count because it’s actually one of the purposes of demanding windmills be put on the grid.

      1. Look at the mess Australia is in….

      2. Our grid has problems. Accepting and distributing power is not one of them.

        1. Only because the percentage of wind power is still quite low.

          1. Luckily, adoption of renewable sources doesn’t scale as a step-function.

            1. That’s like saying, “Luckily, this poison I’m voluntarily taking doesn’t come in big pills.”

              To a certain extent, solar has the advantage of coming in during daily peaks, and going away at night when power consumption is low. It’s not quite synchronized with usage patterns, but it aligns well enough with them that it isn’t horrible. The intermittency is still a problem for grid stabilization, but if the base cost of it wasn’t bad, it would be defensible.

              Wind has no such defense. It’s all intermittent, with no convenient alignment with usage. And can go away for weeks at a time. (Although there are certain locations where it can be quite reliable. Not most places, however.)

              So, solar has advantages and disadvantages. Wind?

              All disadvantage.

              1. “Wind? All disadvantage.”

                Oh, blather. It is a renewable source that works in the dark, for one. And it can go away for weeks at a time … but it can also supply a lot of electrons over most weekly intervals.

                1. Yes, it can supply a lot of electricity for weeks at a time, and then go away for weeks at a time, which means that every bit of it you use has to be backed up by a reliable source of power you’re not using most of the time.

                  You always save money over wind by just running that reliable source 24/7, because you have to pay to have it available even when the wind is blowing.

                  1. “You always save money over wind by just running that reliable source 24/7, because you have to pay to have it available even when the wind is blowing”

                    I see generalities there, not specific numbers for specific projects.

                    At the end of the summer, or in a drought, the reservoir can run dry. So utilities need alternate generation capability for when that happens, so your reasoning seems to say hydro must be bogus.

                    When I look at my electric bill, I’m paying 8 cents a kwh, from a mix of hydro, wind, and non-dispatchable natural gas. It’s the second lowest power rate in the country. I’m friends with one of our local utility’s grid operators. I have visited their control room, on a day they were nervously watching the wind rising to a speed that was going to trip the wind turbines supplying (that day) a third of the load offline. I frequently explain to our …non technical … ‘green’ friends that their ‘just go all renewable’ mantra just won’t work. But saying ‘wind never has value’ is a mantra just as uninformed as theirs is.

              2. You think wind is like poison for our power grid? Because that’s what we were discussing above.

                As for your business case, Absaroka punctures that balloon pretty well.

        2. And California isn’t having rotating blackouts.

    2. Like windmill cancer, right?

      1. Neurological damage.

  5. Well, actually the biggest environmental drawback is that when you consider all the concrete used for construction, maintenance roads, transmission lines and eventual disposal, windmills are net carbon producers. Not only are they not carbon-free, they can’t even out-perform a modern natural gas facility of the same production capacity.

    The next biggest environmental drawback is all the toxic heavy metals that must be mined, refined, transported and eventually disposed of.

    But yeah, figuring out how to not kill quite so many birds is helpful.

    1. Any proper cost analysis is going to be more than a snapshot of this specific moment.

      1. And be directed at specific sites. Financial model assumptions can and should vary greatly.

      2. Which was my point, Sarcastr0. The proper analysis must include the full lifecycle of the project. Everything from construction through destruction. Considering only the factors during the operating phase is like trying to run a business by managing only your variable costs while ignoring the fixed costs. A variable-costs-only analysis can be useful for a few, very specific decisions but if that’s the only factor you look at to run your business, you’ll soon be out of business.

        In case there’s still any ambiguity, let me be clear. Over its entire lifecycle, a windfarm of capacity X puts more CO2 into the atmosphere than a natural gas generation facility of the same capacity.*

        * The analysis I rely on used average US transmission distances. Transmission is a very significant factor in energy generation. There are a small subset of locations where viable windfarm locations are geographically close to the demand sites. That subset of locations could be net CO2 positive. Most windfarms currently in production, however, are not.

  6. Through the ages, improvements in technology has bought smaller, more efficient machines, whether it be computers, telephones, engines, motors, etc.

    Yet somehow, the enlightened believe bigger, less efficient is better.

    1. Yeah, the neglect of tiny efficient coal plants has been shameful.

  7. I’m reminded of something I learned from a person who was very into bird conservation: one of the easiest ways to get birds to not fly into windows is to put a sticker sheet of black dots on the window in question, sort of like the inverse of those pull-down or suction-cup sunshades that you see on SUV rear windows occasionally, but with the dots quite a bit further apart than the holes on those. I think a density of every inch or two is sufficient for most birds? Anyways, similar problem, similar solution.

    Also very reminiscent of things like reflective clothing for bikers at night, and other similar solutions we use to make things more visible to drivers.

    1. “The dirty secret about “clean” wind power is that its turbines are giant whirling machetes. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), “With more than 100,000 turbines expected to be in operation in the United States by 2030, annual bird mortality rates alone (now estimated by the service at 440,000 per year) are expected to exceed 1 million.”

      Like other birds, eagles sometimes do not detect blades that often revolve at 200 mph. Such birds of prey focus on finding smaller creatures to devour and then fatally smack into windmills.”

      1. This rebuts no part of the OP (indeed, it *agrees* with what Adler said up there, while ignoring the new information he highlighted) and is not even related to what I said. I can only assume it was posted here due to, well,

        Neurological damage.

  8. People also seem to forget or not be aware of the fact that industrial-scale wind power worldwide will alter the jetsream and literally cause global climate change, the thing that it is supposedly supposed to stop.

    1. People on “forgot” this because it’s not remotely true. The jet stream has vastly more energy than the world’s total power consumption.

      1. No, actually it is true. Wind is a kind of heat engine, driven by the Sun, and the available power there represents a tiny fraction of the power available through solar, because it isn’t even a very efficient heat engine. If you tried to get a significant fraction of mankind’s energy needs from wind, you’d have measurable effects on climate.

        From a standpoint of renewable energy, solar is vastly superior to wind. Every cent being put into windmills should, rationally, be spent on solar panels instead.

      2. As for the jetstream, yes, there’s a lot of energy stored in it, and thus passing through any given area at a given time. It’s like a giant atmospheric flywheel.

        The question isn’t how much power you could pull from it at one time. It’s how much power you could pull from it continuously.

        “Abstract. Jet streams are regions of sustained high wind speeds in the upper atmosphere and are seen by some as a substantial renewable energy resource. However, jet streams are nearly geostrophic flow, that is, they result from the balance between the pressure gradient and Coriolis force in the near absence of friction. Therefore, jet stream motion is associated with very small generation rates of kinetic energy to maintain the high wind velocities, and it is this generation rate that will ultimately limit the potential use of jet streams as a renewable energy resource. Here we estimate the maximum limit of jet stream wind power by considering extraction of kinetic energy as a term in the free energy balance of kinetic energy that describes the generation, depletion, and extraction of kinetic energy. We use this balance as the basis to quantify the maximum limit of how much kinetic energy can be extracted sustainably from the jet streams of the global atmosphere as well as the potential climatic impacts of its use. We first use a simple thought experiment of geostrophic flow to demonstrate why the high wind velocities of the jet streams are not associated with a high potential for renewable energy generation. We then use an atmospheric general circulation model to estimate that the maximum sustainable extraction from jet streams of the global atmosphere is about 7.5 TW. This estimate is about 200-times less than previous estimates and is due to the fact that the common expression for instantaneous wind power 12 ρv3 merely characterizes the transport of kinetic energy by the flow, but not the generation rate of kinetic energy. We also find that when maximum wind power is extracted from the jet streams, it results in significant climatic impacts due to a substantial increase of heat transport across the jet streams in the upper atmosphere. This results in upper atmospheric temperature differences of >20 °C, greater atmospheric stability, substantial reduction in synoptic activity, and substantial differences in surface climate. We conclude that jet stream wind power does not have the potential to become a significant source of renewable energy.

  9. These are some very silly objections to windmills.

    Really a master class in cherry picking and reasoning motivated purely by tribal affiliation. GOP likes coal. No like other thing. Other thing therefore bad.
    So lets seize on ridiculous crap about neurological damage, or the jetstream, or bald eagles, or the power grid.

    Are windmills great and will save us all? Dunno. But neither are they a menace.

    1. I absolutely hate coal. About the only thing it has going for it is that it’s reliable. It’s incredibly dirty, even if you ignore CO2. It even results in more radiation into the environment than nuclear: Your average coal plant violates the radiation leakage standards for nuclear power!

      I’m a nuclear booster, coal sucks.

      But if we must have ‘renewable’ power, and if we must pretend nuclear isn’t ‘renewable’, despite the supply of nuclear fuel being capable of lasting until the Sun goes off the main sequence and toasts the Earth, let it be solar, not wind.

      1. You and I can agree on nukes. I love them as well. But that has it’s own externalities. What you want is diversity of sources.

        But I also don’t think what’s basically a long-term pilot program on renewables is some kind of deadly policy nightmare.

        1. No, I’ve seen some of the discussions, there are Greens who view renewable power on the grid as a Trojan Horse to bring the grid down, and force local generation. Things like purchase mandates that rob the utilities of the power to manage their own purchasing decisions are viewed as good exactly because they will render the grid unstable beyond a few percent penetration.

          1. Uh, OK. They’re as dumb as some on this thread then.

            There is not a secret evil renewable energy agenda.

            1. It’s not much of a secret, I’ll grant you that.

      2. Nuclear is great in the abstract, but how well does it do if you try to go for a distributed power model? Our grid is vulnerable to a stux-like attack as it is; does nuclear still work if we’re also trying to shift to more, smaller power production centers? My understanding has been that a good nuclear power plant has a minimum size that’s pretty hefty compared to other alternatives, but I’m aware that impression might just be an artifact of the fact that everything was huge in the 50s.

        1. Yeah, pretty much it is an artifact of that, and that large reactor farms addresses some security issues.

          There has been a lot of theoretical work on smaller, encapsulated nuclear power plants, that you’d just bury and take the power from for decades, without requiring maintenance on anything but the non-nuclear end of things. Lately it looks like that work is starting to move into practical demonstration projects.

          I personally think the future for nuclear is the smaller plants, but you’d have to overcome the anti-nuclear hysteria first, because more sitings means more opportunities for NIMBY to kick in.

        2. What Brett said – part of the issue is that civilian nuclear power is frozen in the 1970s in terms of development and innovation.

          The next generation, if we allow it, will be able to make some serious improvements in safety and footprint just by using modern materials.

          1. Either it’s been well classified, or the USN has never had a problem with a reactor and they’ve had nuke subs for nearly 60 years now. Yes, they lost two, but it wasn’t the nuke that did it.

            1. No, it’s not been classified: We’ve never had a *civilian* nuke accident that killed anybody from radiation. Never. I believe we did have one military accident where somebody got impaled by an explosively ejected control rod. Oh, yeah, three people died in that accident, all from trauma, though the radiation would have gotten them if the explosion hadn’t.

  10. I know that this is just fodder for arguments over windmills generally, which itself turns into some proxy for left-right politics. But did you really look at the study?

    We’re talking about 8 turbines and turbines that had a collective 18 strikes over a 10-year period. That means it’s very hard to determine if this is statistically meaningful or just the normal variation. There is such thin data that the study is largely worthless.

    Sure, let’s conduct the experiment elsewhere. But we’ve by no means found anything that we can chalk up as a fix.

  11. Are birds a problem for wind power, or is wind power a problem for birds?

    1. It doesn’t matter; they’ll negotiate between themselves. – Ronald Coase.

  12. I’m glad you point out that bird deaths are the biggest environmental drawback to wind power. Until now I’ve been hearing that it was 1) noise and 2) dissemination of secret left wing indoctrination microwaves.

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