Wind power is an important source of American energy and a critical part of our energy future. It will help us reduce our carbon footprint to address climate change and protect clean air and clean water for future generations. Despite the current administration’s focus on fossil fuels, the wind energy industry is expanding rapidly across the country. Large commercial and industrial corporations like Google and Microsoft — which use large amounts of electricity for their data centers — are driving this growth as they look to clean energy sources for power. These corporations are entering into direct purchase agreements with wind developers to power their operations, and in certain cases the location of wind turbines is driving their facility locations.
This increasing trend and shift in market forces is good for wildlife. With Washington paralyzed on greenhouse gas policy, these corporate leaders are stepping up voluntarily to address climate change, which is one of the biggest threats to wildlife. In addition, these corporate buyers have the sophistication, reputational motivation and ability to go one step further, and ensure that these projects are built and operated responsibly for wildlife.
The kind of purchasing power these large corporations wield is perhaps most important for the future of at least one amazing, yet little known bat species — the hoary bat.
The Plight of the Hoary Bat
While the wind industry has made great progress in minimizing its impacts on bird species, some migrating bats have posed a greater challenge.
The hoary bat, named for its white-tipped fur that is reminiscent of hoar frost, is an impressive small mammal. It is migratory, which means it doesn’t spend the winter in caves and instead will often cover great distances in fall, flying towards warmer climates like many bird species.
Since hoary bats do not hibernate in caves, they are spared from the devastating impacts of white-nose syndrome. However, something about their migration patterns and their tree roosting lifestyle appear to put them at enhanced risk for collision with wind turbines, which may be exacerbated by the fact that bats are attracted to wind turbines. While scientists have not discovered the reason for this attraction, theories range from mistaking turbine poles for trees to seeking out insect prey that congregate in the area.
Of the hundreds of thousands of bats killed by wind turbines in the United States and Canada, hoary bats appear to be the species most often killed, representing over a third (38 percent) of all bat fatalities at turbines. For a species that reproduces slowly, usually just one pup per year, this level of mortality is unsustainable. A paper published earlier this year concluded that using the best estimates for population size and growth rate, hoary bat populations could decline by 90 percent in 50 years if nothing is done to address these impacts.
While this study’s results are undoubtedly alarming, there are solutions under development that can allow wind industry to thrive while conserving bat species.
Working Together Towards Conservation Solutions
Some wind energy industry leaders are proactively collaborating with researchers and government agencies to determine how to minimize impacts to bats by developing technologies to deter bats from approaching wind turbines. Wind energy facilities are hosting research and development at their project sites to advance bat deterrent science. One promising technology involves mounting devices on turbines that emit high frequency sounds that bats, but not people, can hear that deters them from approaching the spinning blades.
These promising technologies are critically important, but they are still at least a few years away from being commercially available for widespread adoption. In the interim, often the only available option is to stop the turbines from spinning during the times when bats are most at risk of being struck. Most fatalities happen on warm, low wind nights during autumn bat migration. This operational curtailment –“feathering” turbine blades (i.e. turning blades parallel to the wind so that they don’t spin at low wind speeds), works because bats are evolved to avoid stationary tall objects.
However, seasonal curtailment and commercialized deterrent devices are not without cost. “Feathered” blades aren’t making electricity — or money — when they aren’t spinning. And while many bat species are only active when wind speeds are low, hoary bats are relatively strong flyers, and so keeping them safe likely requires feathering up to higher wind speeds, which means a bigger bite into energy generation. A wind energy facility already has a slim profit margin so this level of curtailment can often be unfeasible.
There are also no regulatory protections for migratory bats. Hoary bats are not currently listed under the Endangered Species Act, so developers that choose to voluntarily implement additional bat minimization actions may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, making it challenging for responsible wind developers to do the right thing. Yet, unless and until there is industry-wide participation, hoary bat populations will very likely continue to decline, which could trigger federal protection (indeed conversations are already underway) — and that’s bad news for hoary bats and the wind industry. The best and cheapest option is always to conserve a species before it requires listing. Once listed under the Endangered Species Act, the actions needed to conserve the hoary bat may be more onerous and expensive.
The Time to Act is Now
Defenders of Wildlife has been collaborating with the wind energy industry, government agencies, scientists and others to solve this problem swiftly. But we need a market force to create a level playing field and the incentives necessary to instill change. Corporate and industrial power purchasers can be this market force. These corporate environmental leaders have demonstrated the power and the will to shape our energy future, and now we need them to do so for bat-responsible wind energy by rewarding responsible developers that are working alongside Defenders to conserve bat species.
What does that look like? These large corporations need to support wind energy developers that are investing in research to advance bat deterrents and implementing operational measures to minimize bat fatalities at their projects. If responsible wind energy facilities are at a competitive disadvantage, that’s a losing scenario for both wildlife and our climate. Large commercial and industrial companies have revolutionized industries by voluntarily imposing environmental standards upon themselves and throughout their supply chains. We ask those corporate leaders to apply those same values to their energy sources. Bat-friendly wind energy needs to be valued by power purchasers. And while there may be some modest cost differences at first, this cost is worth the investment. By supporting bat-responsible projects, these power purchasers are getting a superior product with a better long-term return on investment. Not only is this a minimal investment in corporate stewardship, it is also a business case decision resulting in lower regulatory and reputational risk for the future.
We can have a strong wind energy industry and healthy bat populations. There are many wind energy developers that are trying to do the right thing for bats, but they can’t do it alone. Commercial and industrial leaders have the ability to drive a sustainable future for the wind energy industry, bats, and the future of our planet.