Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bird Deaths at Wind Farms (Part 5)

2013 Canadian Bird Mortality Study

In 2013, J. Ryan Zimmerling, Andrea C. Pomeroy, Marc V. d'Entremont, and Charles M. Francis published their study: Canadian Estimate of Bird Mortality Due to Collisions and Direct Habitat Loss Associated with Wind Turbine Developments. 

The abstract of the study states: 
We estimated impacts on birds from the development and operation of wind turbines in Canada considering both mortality due to collisions and loss of nesting habitat. We estimated collision mortality using data from carcass searches for 43 wind farms, incorporating correction factors for scavenger removal, searcher efficiency, and carcasses that fell beyond the area searched. 
On average, 8.2 ± 1.4 birds (95% C.I.) were killed per turbine per year at these sites, although the numbers at individual wind farms varied from 0 - 26.9 birds per turbine per year. Based on 2955 installed turbines (the number installed in Canada by December 2011), an estimated 23,300 birds (95% C.I. 20,000 - 28,300) would be killed from collisions with turbines each year.
The researchers estimated direct habitat loss based on data from 32 wind farms in Canada. On average, wind farms caused total habitat loss per turbine of 1.23 hectares (ha), which corresponded to an estimated total habitat loss due to wind farms nationwide in Canada of 3635 ha. 

Based on published estimates of nest density, this loss could represent habitat for  about 5,700 nests of all species. If the researchers assumed that nearby habitats were saturated, and that the wind farms displaced two adult birds per nest site, they concluded that the effects of direct habitat loss were less than that of direct collision mortality. 

If installed wind capacity increases more than 10-fold over the next 10-15 years in Canada, as predicted, the researchers estimated direct mortality of approximately 233,000 birds/year, and displacement of 57,000 pairs through habitat loss.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bird Deaths at Wind Farms (Part 4)

Smithsonian-Sponsored Study of Bird Deaths at Monopole Wind Farms 

In a study published in December 2013, three scientists have attempted to estimate the number of bird deaths associated with tower design and height. See Scott R. Loss, Tom Will, Peter P. Marra, Estimates Of Bird Collision Mortality At Wind Facilities In The Contiguous United States. 

The sponsors of the study included the Migratory Bird Center, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, National Zoological Park; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Birds, Midwest Regional Office; and the Oklahoma State University

The study suggests that the trend toward taller towers could be leading to more deaths. On the other hand, the new research also reveals that siting fewer new turbines in California and more in the Great Plains – where the wind resource is rich and increasingly being exploited – could decrease the risk to birds.

This study did not focus at the species level, but instead analyzed available data to model bird mortality in an era in which lattice towers have largely given way to monopole towers with turbine hub heights often 80 meters or higher, and with longer turbine blades.

The researchers estimated that between 140,000 and 328,000 birds are killed annually by the monopole turbines, “which comprise the vast majority of all installed U.S. wind turbines.” Their median of 234,000 is thus a good deal lower than the Smallwood study earlier in 2013 that put the figure at 573,000.   

But in one of a barrage of caveats contained in the study, the authors said their assumption that all turbines are monopole could affect their total predicted fatalities.

Finally, the authors predict annual mortality estimate of roughly 1.4 million birds if the U.S. reaches its goal of relying on wind energy for 20 percent of its electricity supply.

Abstract of Smithsonian Study:
Wind energy has emerged as a promising alternative to fossil fuels, yet the impacts of wind facilities on wildlife remain unclear. Prior studies estimate between 10,000 and 573,000 fatal bird collisions with U.S. wind turbines annually; however, these studies do not differentiate between turbines with a monopole tower and those with a lattice tower, the former of which now comprise the vast majority of all U.S. wind turbines and the latter of which are largely being de-commissioned.

We systematically derived an estimate of bird mortality for U.S. monopole turbines by applying inclusion criteria to compiled studies, identifying correlates of mortality, and utilizing a predictive model to estimate mortality along with uncertainty. Despite measures taken to increase analytical rigor, the studies we used may provide a non-random representation of all data. Requiring industry reports to be made publicly available would improve understanding of wind energy impacts. Nonetheless, we estimate that between 140,000 and 328,000 (mean = 234,000) birds are killed annually by collisions with monopole turbines in the contiguous U.S.

We found support for an increase in mortality with increasing turbine hub height and support for differing mortality rates among regions, with per turbine mortality lowest in the Great Plains. Evaluation of risks to birds is warranted prior to continuing a widespread shift to taller wind turbines. Regional patterns of collision risk, while not obviating the need for species-specific and local-scale assessments, may inform broad-scale decisions about wind facility siting.
Smithsonian Study Findings:

After accounting for varying proportions of the year being sampled, annual per turbine mortality was modeled to be highest in the East (median = 8.16 birds), followed by California (median = 4.82 birds), the West excluding California (median = 3.64 birds), and the Great Plains (median = 2.43 birds). The researchers estimate that 46.4% of total mortality at monopole wind turbines occurs in California, 23.1% occurs in the Great Plains, 18.8% occurs in the East, and 11.6% occurs in the West ( Table 2).

On a per MW basis, California had a mean collision rate of 18.76 birds per MW (95% CI = 9.68–27.84), followed by the East (3.86 birds/MW; 95% CI = 3.05–4.68), the West (2.83 birds/MW; 95% CI = 2.05–3.62), and the Great Plains (1.81 birds/MW; 1.00–2.62). Regional differences based on the additive region-height model are different from those based on the univariate region model because the latter were calculated independently of turbine height data.

More interesting, perhaps, is the tentative link the researchers draw between turbine height and avian risk. The researchers said their data set had hub heights ranging from 36 to 80 meters and as height increased, “annual model-predicted mortality increased nearly ten-fold (from 0.64 t 6.20 birds per turbine).”

Friday, May 16, 2014

LSAC Releases Update on Law School Applications

ASL Not the only Law School Adjusting to the New Normal 

This month, LSAC reports: “As of 5/09/14, there are 337,978 Fall 2014 applications submitted by 49,907 applicants. Applicants are down 8.3% and applications are down 8.9% from 2013.” 

One blogger charted, in late 2013, the national downturn in applicants based on LSAC data: It is a very powerful illustration of the change in the number over the last several years.

The National Jurist explained in a Dec. 2013 article about the drop of enrolled students:
According to figures released by the American Bar Association, law schools enrolled 39,675 new students this fall—an 11 percent decrease from the 44,481 students who enrolled last fall. The last time law schools saw such low 1L enrollment was 1975, when there were 163 ABA-accredited law schools. There are 202 such schools today . . . . University of St. Thomas School of law professor Jerome Organ in June wrote a blog post predicting 38,300 to 39,900 matriculants in 2013.
I have blogged about the various aspects of this story here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Latest TV Ad for the Appalachian School of Law

Focus on our 2014 Grads!

Once again, thanks to the generosity of ASL Trustee Joe Wolfe, ASL is on the airwaves via our NBC and FOX television stations.

This time, the star of the show is the entire Class of 2014.  Please share the link as widely as you can.  Graduates:  your mom wants to watch it.

P.S.  Yes.  I know.  Photo features some grads from an earlier class. 

Bird Deaths at Wind Farms (Part 3)

The Smallwood Study Presents Highest Estimate of Bird Deaths to Date

The Research

In an earlier post, I mentioned the current research on bird deaths at wind farms. Scientists/industry have conducted five major studies to date:
  • 2013 Smallwood Study: 573,000 bird deaths per year.
  • 2013 Canadian Bird Mortality Study: 233,000 bird deaths per year, and habitat displacement of 57,000 breeding pairs.
  • 2009 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Study: 440,000 per year.
  • 2013 Smithsonian-sponsored Study: 140,000 to 328,000 per year (limited to monopole turbines).
  • Wind Industry Estimate: 58,000 per year.
Over the next several days, I'll discuss each study.  

The Smallwood Study:

In March 2013, biologist K. Shawn Smallwood published his study in the March 2013 issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin. His estimate of bird fatalities at wind farms is the highest to date. 

He estimates that, in 2012, turbines across the United States killed 573,000 birds, including 83,000 raptors. Smallwood’s number of bird deaths represents a 30 percent jump over the 440,000 fatalities estimated by a 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.

Smallwood is featured in this video on the Altamont Pass wind farm. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bird Deaths at Wind Farms (Part 2)

Finding Dead Birds at the Base of Wind Turbines: The Protocol

In my last post, I listed the studies estimating bird deaths at wind farms. I plan to discuss each of them over the next week. 

Research Protocol:

But first, I want to describe the methodology for most of these studies. You can see these procedures in action in the video about bird deaths at the Altamont Pass wind farm here.  The discussion runs from 9:56 to 11:00 minutes into the clip. 

The developer/operator should place wildlife biologists into the wind farm on a regular basis to do a carcass count. Ideally, assuming the developer devotes the needed resources, the biologist should conduct the fatality searches within a radius of 50 meters of the turbine base. The searcher should mark out 100 meter square plots to record carcass findings for study longitudinally. 

    Scientists studying bird fatalities recommend the use of a search protocol involving 120 meter long transects spaced at 20 meter intervals or circular transects extending out to 45 meters from the turbine tower or base. 

      Each study area should consist of 10-15 turbines. For large wind farms, the searcher should focus searches on turbines close to landscape features that birds likely use. The searcher can also randomly select additional turbines to survey. The turbines surveyed should vary to assess whether one part of the farm creates more fatalities than other parts of the farm.

        The searcher designers must attempt to account for variations in landscape (cliff edge) and vegetation conditions (very dense scrub), which might affect visibility or accessibility to carcasses. They should make the search area smaller or section off those more difficult areas from the search area so the searcher can cover the same area easily from search to search.

          The searcher should check each turbine daily for small wind farms or every 5 days at larger farms. The carcass surveys should begin at dawn or one hour after dawn to limit loss to day time scavengers. The study should attempt to account for carcass loss based on overnight scavenger activity. One study showed that scavengers cart off a very large number of dead birds overnight.

          The searcher should use a slow and regular pace spending 30 to 90 minutes at each tower designated for search.

            The searcher should record:
            • GPS coordinates for the carcass,
            • Direction to the wind turbine the bird was found,
            • Distance to the tower the bird was found
            • State of the carcass,
            • Type of wounds or injuries observed,
            • Vegetation height were the bird was found,
            • Species,
            • Sex (if known),
            • Age (if known),
            • Date and time of finding, and
            • Condition of carcass ( intact, scavenged, dismembered).

            In addition, the searcher should:
            • Photograph the carcass, and
            • Map its location on a detailed map.

            Depending on the scope of the survey, the searcher may:
            • Do a field necropsy,
            • Collect carcasses for a lab necropsy, or
            • Take samples of carcasses for a lab necropsy.

            Taken together, this data, collected on a regular basis, can help wind farm operators decided when to shut down farms to protect migrating birds -- either by hour, day, or season.  The data can also reveal whether a certain turbine is especially dangerous to birds.  If so, the operator can dismantle the turbine. This video discusses that option at 6:00 to 7:30 minutes into the clip.

            Based on my reading of the literature, we still know very little about bird deaths associated with wind farms.  These types of fatality surveys are key to gaining that knowledge.  Obviously, they are expensive to conduct, even if the operator/developer uses graduate students to do the survey work. 

            Friday, May 9, 2014

            Bird Deaths at Wind Farms (Part 1)

            Growth of Farms Puts More Birds At Risk


            A 2008 Department of Energy report calls for the U.S. to generate 20% of its electricity from wind by 2030. By then, experts expect wind turbines to kill at least one million birds each year, and probably significantly more, depending on how many turbines developers build over that time. Wind farms are also expected to impact almost 20,000 square miles of terrestrial habitat, and over 4,000 square miles of marine habitat by 2030, some critical to threatened species.

            Deaths will come to birds who hold our identity and imagination, like Bald Eagles and other raptors. Turbines also kill birds listed as threatened or endangered unless developers carefully plan and implement wind farms. Onshore, these species include Golden Eagles, Whooping Cranes, sage-grouse, prairie-chickens, and many migratory songbirds. Offshore, species at risk include Brown Pelicans, Northern Gannets, sea ducks, loons, and terns, among other birds.

            Scientists poorly understand the relationship of current fatalities to the demographics of bird and bat populations, but some experts do not see a problematic link between current wind farm fatalities and declines in bird populations (NAS 2007). My earlier post shows that other man-made structures cause far more bird deaths.  Domestic and feral cats pose the greatest risk to bird populations.

            However, as wind energy facilities increase in number, fatalities and thus the potential for biologically-significant impacts to local populations increases (NAS 2007; Erickson et al. 2002; Manville 2009).

            Mechanics of Wind Turbines

            Early turbines were mounted on towers 60–80 feet in height with rotors extending 50–60 feet in diameter. The blades turned 60–80 revolutions per minute (rpm).
            Today's land-based wind turbines are mounted on towers 200–260 feet in height with rotors 150–260 feet in diameter. The blade tips reach over 425 feet above ground level. Rotor swept areas now exceed 1 acre. Engineers expect the reach of the blade sweep to cover nearly 1.5 acres within the next several years. 

            Under the current design, the speed of rotor revolution has significantly decreased to 11–28 rpm, but blade tip speeds have remained about the same. Under normal operating conditions, blade tip speeds range from 138–182 mph. 

            For some disturbing video about bird deaths at wind farms, see here (Altamont Pass) and here (bird strike).

            Wider and longer blades produce greater vortices and turbulence in their wake as they rotate, posing a potential problem for bats and small songbirds.

            Engineers have reduced the number of turbines needed to produce a megawatt of electrical power by increasing the efficiency of each turbine. Accordingly, developers can generate power equivalent to older farms using fewer turbines that are more widely spaced. 

            Still, Manufacturers are developing larger turbines.The one pictured here seems to be large enough for a helicopter landing pad and is destined for offshore use. 

            The Research

            In future posts, I'll discuss the current research on bird deaths at wind farms. Scientists/industry have conducted five major studies to date:
            • 2013 Smallwood Study: 573,000 bird deaths per year.
            • 2013 Canadian Bird Mortality Study: 233,000 bird deaths per year, and habitat displacement of 57,000 breeding pairs.
            • 2009 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Study: 440,000 per year.
            • 2013 Smithsonian-Sponsored Study: 140,000 to 328,000 per year (limited to monopole turbines).
            • Wind Industry Estimate: 58,000 per year.

            Sunday, May 4, 2014

            Our Tolerance for Bird Deaths at Energy Facilities

            Significant Losses at Power Plants 
            and Transmission Lines

            Bird Populations Slumping:

            Since the release of bird status reports at the Asilomar Conference, bird populations have continued to slump, and the list of North American birds with declining populations or otherwise at risk at the regional and continental levels has increased since 2002 where 131 species were then designated (USFWS 2002). 

            Today, these include 147 species on the 2008 Birds of Conservation Concern list (USFWS 2008), 92 birds federally listed as Threatened or Endangered on the Endangered Species Act (ESA), State-listed species, and species listed as high priorities on the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, among others. 

            The growing documented and suspected impacts of structures on birds—from direct collision mortality, barotrauma, electrocutions, cumulative effects, and from habitat fragmentation, disturbance and site avoidance—bode poorly for our bird populations.

            Migratory birds—of which there are currently 836 designated species—are a Federal trust resource managed and protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The published list of the 836 species is found at 50 CFR Ch. 1, 10.13, List of Migratory Birds.*

            Reasons for Bird Deaths:

            The estimated cumulative impact of collisions with wind turbines is several orders of magnitude lower than the estimated impacts from the leading anthropogenic causes of bird mortality.

            The available data estimates the following causes of death (in millions per year) for birds:

            • Aircraft .08
            • Wind turbines .58 to.573
            • Large communication towers 6.8
            • Power plants 14.33
            • Cellular, radio & microwave towers 4 to 50
            • Cars and trucks 50 to 100
            • Agriculture 67
            • Pesticides 72
            • Building windows 97 to 976
            • Hunting 100
            • Transmission lines 175
            • Domestic and feral cats 210 to 3,700

            Thus, the biggest threat to birds are cats that live some part of the day outside where they hunt and kill birds.  They kill up to 3.7 billion birds per year.

            This data also reveals our tolerance for bird deaths associated with energy-related projects, including power plants, and transmission lines.  Deaths at either of these types of facilities far exceed deaths at wind farms.
            Bird Deaths and Wind Farms:
            Still, we may want to answer the questions:  
            • How many more cumulative bird deaths do we want to tolerate at wind farms projects?
            • Are wind farms especially dangerous to specific species of birds that we have a heightened need to protect, like eagles?
            • Can wind farm operators design wind farms to mitigate bird deaths?
            • Can they monitor and operate wind farms to mitigate bird deaths?
            I will answer these questions in future posts in this series. 
            * This discussion is derived from sources I researched in connection with the Environmental Dispute Resolution course I teach.  I am not including citations to those sources, and I acknowledge that some of this discussion is directly lifted from those sources (with my apologies to the authors I failed to credit).  Eventually, I plan to write a law review article on this topic and the original sources will receive credit there.    

            Saturday, May 3, 2014

            Wind Power and Eagles on Collision Course

            American Bird Conservancy Will Sue the U.S. Department of Interior 

            In a news release issued yesterday,  Washington, D.C.-based American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has announced its intention to sue the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI).

            [They explain that they plan] to charg[e] the agency with multiple violations of federal law in connection with its recent decision to offer wind energy companies and others to obtain 30-year eagle take permits. The previous rule provided for a maximum duration of five years for each permit, which authorizes projects to "take" (i.e., injure, kill or otherwise disturb) eagles.
            On April 30, ABC sent the DOI and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) a notice of intent to sue, and the group has chosen public interest law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal to represent it. ABC argues that the new eagle take rule violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA).

            ABC says it is initiating legal action in order to have the rule invalidated pending full compliance with federal environmental statutes. For example, the group charges that the 30-year eagle permit rule was adopted in the absence of any NEPA document or any ESA consultation regarding impacts. It is, therefore, a “glaring example of an agency action that gambles recklessly with the fate of the nation’s bald and golden eagle populations,” the letter says.
            On December 6, 2013, the DOI announced that it planned to change the rule governing eagle "takings."   It explained:
            In 2009, the Service began a permitting program under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act applicable to developers of renewable energy projects and other activities that may “take” (injure, kill or otherwise disturb) bald and golden eagles. The Eagle Act allows the Service to authorize the programmatic take of eagles, which is take associated with, but not the purpose of, an otherwise lawful activity and does not have a long-term impact on the population. 
            These permits have been for a maximum of five years – a period that does not reflect the actual operating parameters of most renewable energy projects or other similar long term project operations. The revised rule, a result of extensive stakeholder engagement and public comment, extends the maximum permit tenure to 30 years, subject to a recurring five-year review process throughout the permit life.

            Only applicants who commit to adaptive management measures to ensure the preservation of eagles will be considered for permits with terms longer than five years. Any such increased measures, which would be implemented if monitoring shows that initial permit conditions do not provide sufficient protection, will be negotiated with the permittee and specified in the terms and conditions of the permit.
            All permits will be closely monitored to ensure that allowable take numbers are not exceeded and that conservation measures are in place and effective over the life of the permit. Steps taken today will increase transparency and accountability by making annual reports and five-year compilations of eagle fatalities available to the public.

            The revised regulations also increase the fees charged for processing programmatic permit applications to reflect the true cost to the Service of developing adaptive conservation measures and monitoring the effectiveness of the terms and conditions of the permits. Permits also will now be transferable to new owners of projects, provided that any successor is qualified and committed to carrying out the conditions of the permit. For more information, click here.
            * * *  
            [T]he Service solicited public comments about the permit program concerning a number of specific issues, including:
            • How the Eagle Act’s language regarding preservation of eagles should be interpreted and applied;
            • The level of impacts that trigger compensatory mitigation;
            • Issuance criteria for programmatic permits; and
            • Possible mechanisms for streamlining permits.
            The Service will solicit additional public input on the 2009 permit regulations at a series of regional workshops that will take place in early 2014, along with an opportunity to submit written comments. The Service anticipates publishing a proposed rule and accompanying NEPA documents in fall of 2014, with a final rule and NEPA documents in fall of 2015.
            The final rule is available here.
            In my Environmental Dispute Resolution course, we spent a 2-hour class period discussing the impact of wind farms on raptors and other bird species.  In my next blog post, I'll share what we learned.