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Wyoming wind farm tries painting turbine blades black to prevent bird collisions

Wyoming Public Radio|Will Walkey|April 5, 2024
WyomingImpact on BirdsImpact on Bats

Wyoming is a critical habitat area for many species, especially golden eagles. Tens of thousands live here year-round and the state is also a huge migration corridor between Alaska and Mexico. Unlike its cousin the bald eagle, the golden eagle population is stable at best and could potentially decline in parts of the U.S. Bedrosian said wind energy growth is a threat for a species that has always been “at the top of the food chain.” “They've never had to look over their shoulder. So if they're up soaring looking for prey, they're never looking over their shoulder for something else to come get them,” Bedrosian. “When they don't see that turbine blade going at 180 miles an hour, that could potentially hit them.”


Wind energy is expected to be a big part of the transition away from fossil fuels. But that comes with consequences, including the potential for more deadly collisions between turbines and birds and bats. One experiment underway in Wyoming is studying a potentially game-changing – and simple – solution to this problem.

In the Mountain West, large and iconic avian species – such as owls, turkey vultures and golden eagles – are consistently colliding with the human world. At the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyo., veterinarians, avian scientists and volunteers often treat birds for lead poisoning, crashes into infrastructure, gunshot wounds or other injuries.

For the center’s conservation director, Bryan Bedrosian, his work is about …

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Wind energy is expected to be a big part of the transition away from fossil fuels. But that comes with consequences, including the potential for more deadly collisions between turbines and birds and bats. One experiment underway in Wyoming is studying a potentially game-changing – and simple – solution to this problem.

In the Mountain West, large and iconic avian species – such as owls, turkey vultures and golden eagles – are consistently colliding with the human world. At the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyo., veterinarians, avian scientists and volunteers often treat birds for lead poisoning, crashes into infrastructure, gunshot wounds or other injuries.

For the center’s conservation director, Bryan Bedrosian, his work is about preserving the wildlife that makes Wyoming special.

“We should be proud of the fact that we in Wyoming have some of the best wild natural spaces and some of the best wildlife populations,” he said. I think, unfortunately, it comes with a higher degree of responsibility.”

Wyoming is a critical habitat area for many species, especially golden eagles. Tens of thousands live here year-round and the state is also a huge migration corridor between Alaska and Mexico. Unlike its cousin the bald eagle, the golden eagle population is stable at best and could potentially decline in parts of the U.S. Bedrosian said wind energy growth is a threat for a species that has always been “at the top of the food chain.”

“They've never had to look over their shoulder. So if they're up soaring looking for prey, they're never looking over their shoulder for something else to come get them,” Bedrosian. “When they don't see that turbine blade going at 180 miles an hour, that could potentially hit them.”

Bedrosian knows that wind turbines are nowhere near the largest threat to winged wildlife. They kill an estimated hundreds of thousands of birds and bats a year, though scientific estimates vary. Still, those numbers are exponentially less than threats like power lines, cars, buildings and even house cats. But wind power is new and growing, especially in the West. The largest wind farm in the continental U.S. is being built in Wyoming, and the state has some of the best wind resources in the region.

“It's just another piece that wasn't there before that is affecting that kind of tipping point going towards a negative population trend,” Bedrosian said.

Additionally, since golden and bald eagles have federal protections, collisions are an expensive problem for utilities. One wind company had to pay more than $8 million in fines in 2020 after killing at least 150 eagles over a decade.

Current solutions to this issue are mixed, according to Shilo Felton, a senior scientist with the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute. Utility companies can try stopping the turbines from spinning when birds are around, but that requires detection using complicated technology or human spotters on the landscape. Additionally, that method is inefficient.

“Curtailing turbines is generally very effective because you've stopped the turbine from moving. But it also results in lost energy production,” Felton said. “That lost energy has to be made up somewhere to meet our energy demands as people.”

But Felton is studying a solution that would require no technology, human intervention or turbine curtailment. One small-scale study in Norway found that painting a single blade black allowed birds to likely see the turbine better and avoid collisions. The reduction was over 70 percent, with raptors like white-tailed eagles experiencing the largest drop in fatalities.

The Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute is now working with several other partners – including the utility PacifiCorp, the U.S. Geological Survey and others – to replicate the study near Glenrock, Wyo. They’ve painted 36 turbines and will use human and canine tracking to count collisions over several years. Felton says it’s an incredible opportunity to examine the statistical viability of paint as a solution.

“Wildlife conservation doesn't happen in a vacuum. We have to consider how we as humans interact with wildlife and how we can address those challenges so that humans and wildlife can coexist,” Felton said.

This is the beginning of the research process and there are a ton of unanswered questions, like: Do North American birds see turbines the same way as European ones? Will the general public tolerate black blades? Are there energy or engineering concerns with black turbines compared to white ones?

But Jona Whitesides, a spokesperson for PacifiCorp, said it’s worth learning more because of the economic and conservation benefits it could provide for his company.

“Of course this is exciting, because it's something new. Something that's never really been tried,” he said. “If it is viable, it definitely could be one of those solutions that could be rolled out nationwide.”

For the Teton Raptor Center, this cooperation is encouraging. Conservation Director Bryan Bedrosian said that the growth of renewable energy is important for global bird populations trying to survive the existential threat of climate change.

“We know that our changing climate is affecting golden eagle populations on a continental scale … We have to do something about that,” he said. “That said, turbines in the wrong place are also a source of direct mortality for eagles.”

The Teton Raptor Center recently released a new tool, called RaptorMapper, to show utility companies – or other industries – where high-value breeding and migration corridors are for golden eagles in Wyoming. This could show wind developers where costly collisions are most likely, and potentially where to employ solutions or avoid building altogether.

“Wind turbines, just like every other issue, particularly with the environment, is not black and white,” Bedrosian said. “If we can reduce that risk with something as simple as painting the blade, I am all for it.”

Researchers hope to have conclusive results from this Glenrock study later this decade. They also want to compare their data with similar experiments happening around the world, including at wind farms in South Africa, Sweden and Spain.


Source:https://www.wyomingpublicmedi…

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