Johannesburg - The monumental wind turbines sprouting up across South Africa’s landscape are cutting down rare and endangered bird species that have to run the gauntlet of kilometres of airspace filled with deadly, moving blades.
Large swaths of country covered in turbines, such as in the Jeffreys Bay area in the Eastern Cape, are a result of rapid wind energy development since 2011 as part of government’s renewable energy independent power producer procurement programme.
So far, this has resulted in 22 fully operational windfarms producing 1 876.6 megawatts of power.
A further 12 facilities are awaiting long overdue sign-off from Eskom and a further two are in construction.
However, while renewable energy is desirable to slow global warming, many wind farms are in remote areas and a report by BirdLife SA reveals that six endangered Cape vultures have been mowed down by these turbines so far.
Only about 4 000 breeding pairs are left, making them more threatened than the rhino.
The turbines and associated power line infrastructure add to the existing electrical infrastructure that has resulted in 1 031 Cape vulture deaths recorded since 1996.
BirdLife SA’s birds and renewable energy manager Samantha Ralston-Paton said bird fatalities at 16 wind farms – involving 626 turbines – have been monitored.
The resultant report reveals that five equally endangered black harriers have also been killed.
Also mowed down have been six Verreaux’s eagles, listed as vulnerable, and six blue cranes, listed as near-threatened.
Among the 118 species of birds killed were 63 jackal buzzards, which make up 10% of all the bird fatalities measured on wind farms.
Rob Simmons holds a martial eagle killed by turbines on a wind farm in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Marlei Martins)
In a joint statement earlier this year, even before the Cape vulture deaths were known, VulPro, BirdLife SA, and the Endangered Wildlife Trust called for appropriate spatial planning and rigorous impact assessments to minimise the danger wind farms pose to endangered birdlife.
According to the organisations, the Cape vulture – which only breeds in South Africa – is particularly vulnerable because it is large and not an agile flyer.
Being unable to rapidly adjust their flight path, they are prone to collisions with turbines and associated power lines.
The organisations are particularly concerned about wind farm applications in the Eastern Cape interior through the Renewable Energy Development Zones identified in the strategic environmental impact assessment (EIA) for wind and solar energy.
The proposed Stormberg and Cookhouse development zones are in escarpment areas favoured by Cape vultures for foraging, roosting and breeding.
Development of wind energy in these zones should be reconsidered, the organisations say. Projects that have already received environmental authorisation “without rigorous preconstruction avifaunal monitoring should be subjected to careful scrutiny”, and turbine shutdown on demand should be implemented when necessary to prevent fatalities.
Lawyer and environmental consultant André van der Spuy has been representing interested and affected parties in opposition to the Golden Valley and Spitskop West wind farms near Cookhouse. He believes the EIAs for these developments are fatally flawed and underplay the effects they will have on Cape vultures and other endangered species.
Van der Spuy argues that, given the vicinity of roosts and the vultures’ range, fatalities are certain.
The appeal against the 120MW Golden Valley development has been overruled by the department of environmental affairs, while the EIA for Spitskop has lapsed.
Golden Valley is a renewable energy independent power producer procurement programme round four preferred bidder awaiting sign-off from Eskom.
Last year, Van der Spuy unsuccessfully appealed against the Golden Valley wind energy project and two EIAs, acting on behalf of Ezulu Private Game Reserve, Bokdam Private Nature Reserve, and E and R van Rensburg. Van der Spuy contends that the EIA, compiled by Coastal and Environmental Services, does not comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Management Act.
Van der Spuy’s assertions were strongly disputed by Amstilite, Terra Wind and BioTherm Energy, which hold the Golden Valley environmental authorisations.
But Van der Spuy believes many EIAs conducted for wind farms are insufficient, do not adhere to proper procedures and favour the client.
He said it was worrying that once the Renewable Energy Development Zones were gazetted, wind and solar photovoltaic developments in these power corridors would only have to undergo a basic assessment and not a full EIA.
But even full EIAs were often flawed.
Bird specialist and owner of Avisense Consulting, Andrew Jenkins, said environmental assessment standards “are frequently determined more by the time and budgetary constraints of the developer, rather than by the sensitivity of the receiving environments and the predicted risks of environmental damage”.
There was a lack of proper oversight by government, he said, and the fact that many EIAs took short cuts and favoured the developer was an “open secret” that few environmental consultants would “stick their neck out” and admit.
CSIR manager of environmental management services Paul Lochner was involved in the strategic environmental assessments to identify the eight Renewable Energy Development Zones. He said they were looking to do further vulture research in the development zones covering the Cookhouse area.
“Some people are shocked at the poor quality work being done in the EIAs,” he said.
SA Wind Energy Association CEO Brenda Martin said their environmental working group, which is made up of representatives from most operational wind farms, met regularly with BirdLife SA.
Martin said the industry was “very mindful of any associated unavoidable and avoidable negative impacts”.
Independent power producers also applied bird fatality mitigation measures, including stopping the turbines if needed, she added.
Department of environmental affairs spokesperson Albi Modise said environmental management plan reports would include plans for the removal of carcasses in vulture sensitive areas to limit their attraction to wind farm terrain. He added that information on vulture roosts and colonies would be continually updated on a national web-based system.
“The department has refused wind energy facilities where impacts of high significance were identified and mitigation measures were not viable,” he said.