Two of the largest opposition factors to wind energy are the aesthetics of wind farms and the possible damage caused to animal habitats by large wind turbines.
While the first factor is and will remain one of personal taste, nine researchers from eight different conservation and biology programs across the United States have presented an answer for the second factor – that is, placing wind farms on land already disturbed by human activities, for example, farmers’ fields. These researchers published their analysis in a study released April 13, 2011 on PLoS One.
It’s all about location. These researchers said that improperly placed wind farms can fragment animal habitats and, at worst, lead to a local extinction of creatures in the affected area. This loss of wildlife in turn leads to a lack of biodiversity in the area. For example, animals like sage grouse are heavily affected by large, tall structures like wind turbines. They show a 90% reduction in nesting in areas up to a little over one mile away from any tall structures. The researchers said:
For these and other species that require large unfragmented habitat, improperly sited wind turbines may be incompatible with maintaining viable wild populations.
Habitat loss and fragmentation is the primary cause of animals being placed under federal protected status, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Program.
Placing wind farms on land already heavily disturbed by humans – fields used for farming and other agricultural lands, for example – would lessen the environmental impact of the turbines and ensure further wildlife habitat is not fragmented further for the sake of wind energy. The study mentioned that wind farms typically use only two to four percent of an area, making them compatible with agricultural production.
It makes sense economically as well. Researchers found that farmers can expect about $1,000 per hectare (10,000 square meters) of corn, while they could receive at least $4,000 per year per wind turbine. Each turbine has a footprint of less than one hectare.
Other already-disturbed areas for wind farm placement included oil and gas fields, ridges surrounding abandoned surface mining operations, and areas next to existing roads. The researchers said in their paper:
Guiding development toward areas with existing footprints may represent the best opportunity to mitigate impacts associated with climate change.
But the solution is not so cut and dry. The study only looked at terrestrial (land-based) disturbances and not at potential disturbances to birds, bats, and insects. Birds require migratory resting sites, some of which can be located in disturbed areas. This puts them at risk of collision with wind turbines, though the number of bird deaths from turbines is relatively low when compared to deaths caused by glass, power lines, and even cats.
The United States Department of Energy has put forth the “20% Wind Energy by 2030” plan in an effort to have the U.S. producing 20% of its electricity from wind in two decades’ time. Researchers found that meeting this goal would require an affected land area about the size of Florida. Regulating most of the new wind development to already-disturbed lands would lessen the impact on animal habitats.