After some wind power projects have had dramatically higher bird deaths than predicted, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a set of voluntary guidelines to reduce bird deaths.
Those guidelines, if adopted by the government and developers, could force significant changes to projects, including those along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.
Bird conservation groups want the guidelines to be mandatory rules. Wind power proponents say the guidelines are too strict as they stand.
William R. Evans, director of the nonprofit Old Bird Inc., Ithaca, said the placement of wind projects is a complicated balance between the need and political momentum for renewable wind energy and the desire to protect wildlife.
"With a few projects, there's probably not too much damage, but a major build-out would cause damage. Where do you draw the line?" he said. "We have to face the consequences."
The guidelines call for:
* Three years of pre-construction bird population studies.
* At least two and up to five years of post-construction bird fatality studies.
* Site development decisions made as a coordinated effort among the developer, the Wildlife Service and state and tribal agencies.
* If the parties can't agree on the adverse effects on wildlife, the service may document concerns, but the decision to proceed lies with the developer.
* Use of operational modifications - raising the speed at which turbines start turning or not operating during key migratory times or using radar to turn off turbines when flocks pass - was suggested.
* Further testing on other measures, such as multicolored turbines, and effects, such as turbine noise on birds, were suggested.
The public can comment on the guidelines until May 19.
The American Wind Energy Association, Washington, D.C., takes issue with the guidelines, saying they were changed after a committee reached a consensus on reasonable measures. The extensive studies and management based on deaths will add expense and delay construction of projects, the association said in a news release. It also adds to the number of projects that would have federal oversight, raising cost without giving additional staff to review more applications, the association said.
"While the wind industry has the responsibility to minimize the impacts of development and operations to the greatest extent practicable, and are constantly striving to achieve that goal, the reality is that every form of development, energy or otherwise, has an impact on the natural environment and the choice we are left with as a society is to pursue those avenues that have the lowest amount of impact," AWEA siting policy director John Anderson said via email.
But the American Bird Conservancy, Washington, D.C., says the guidelines aren't strong enough because they are optional.
"The conservancy believes we must have mandatory standards to reduce impacts from wind energy," said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator. "The industry is not going to support standards even though they're optional."
A key piece of the guidelines, which was also part of the previous version, called for three years of bird population studies.
"The most important thing is that wind farms be built in areas that are not so high-risk for birds that they can't be mitigated," Ms. Fuller said. "The only way to find that out is by having good data to find out where those areas are."
Mitigation measures, such as curtailing turbine use during certain seasons or times of day, also depend on the species of birds involved.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that 440,000 birds are killed each year by turbines. Because the push is to increase from 25 gigawatts now to 300 gigawatts in 2030, that number will grow, said Robert Johns, the conservancy's public relations director.
"It doesn't necessarily mean 12 times, but there will be a lot more birds killed," he said. "We don't have data on whether bigger turbines kill birds at the same rate that more smaller ones do."
Such measures as radar to detect bird flocks and burying power lines could go a long way toward protecting bird populations, the conservancy said.
"Wind power needs to be 'bird smart,'" Mr. Johns said. "Don't site where lots of birds should be, employ mitigation when constructing infrastructure and compensate for lost habitat."
The American Wind Energy Association argues that wind turbines are a very minor human cause for bird deaths. It disputes the service's number, saying the annual number of bird deaths from turbines is about 108,000.
The association's figure is "based on national averages as derived from over a decade of on-the-ground scientifically designed and statistically robust post-construction monitoring conducted at wind farms across the U.S. by biological consultants," Mr. Anderson said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service extrapolated the 440,000 figure from partial data and assumptions, the association said.
Buildings kill 550 million birds per year, while power lines kill 130 million, cars kill 80 million and domestic cats kill 10 million, it said. And wind power is far less risky for bird populations than other sources of energy, it said.
Just across the Canadian border from proposed projects in Jefferson County, the Wolfe Island Wind Farm has a very high bird death rate per turbine, at 13.4 birds per turbine and a Canadian high of 0.27 birds of prey per turbine. The deaths have alarmed Canadian and U.S. conservation groups.
Mr. Evans suggested that bird deaths at St. Lawrence Wind Farm and Cape Vincent Wind Farm would be comparable to those on Wolfe Island.
"But they were proposed before the data from Wolfe Island came out," he said. "It's not easy to draw the line on which developments. The ones that already started could be allowed, but then others that want to come in and aren't could say the process isn't fair."
Mr. Evans conducted the bird population studies for Galloo Island Wind Farm, which were "the most robust and thorough bird studies of any project in the U.S."
The studies showed that many bird populations didn't visit the island during migration because it is six miles offshore from the mainland.
"A substantial number of bird populations don't want to fly over the lake," Mr. Evans said.
Very few bird of prey species visit the island, too. A certain number of cormorants, gulls and Caspian terns fly over the island daily in search of food. But terns, the only species of concern, likely would experience 30 to 40 turbine-related deaths per year, which will hardly put a dent in a colony of 1,700 from Little Galloo Island, he said.
"It will kill terns and a substantially smaller number of raptors," Mr. Evans said. "All these things have to be weighed against Galloo Island having one of the best wind resources on land in the Eastern U.S."