It’s an ill wind


WHEN I read Boris Johnson’s crazy announcement that he intends every home in Britain to be run on wind power within ten years, my heart sank. It is the death knell for hundred of thousands of birds, many of them already under threat.

As my TCW colleague Henry Getley reported yesterday, even deep greens such as former Extinction Rebellion spokesman Zion Lights (yes, that’s her real name) admit that the target will require one new wind turbine to be installed around Britain every weekday for the entire 2020s at a cost of some £50billion. According to a list in Wikipedia there are already 2,181 turbines around our coast, and if Ms Lights is correct this project will mean the installation of another 2,600, bringing the total to nearly 4,781.

Although the blades appear to move at a leisurely pace, this is an illusion and the tips can easily reach 180mph or more. Birds are not equipped to deal with this sort of hazard. Offshore turbines are being built bigger and bigger, and one of the latest will stretch 853 feet into the air, with blades and therefore ‘sweep’ the size of a football field. You can see an enthusiastic post about this monster here. 

Operators of wind farms are keen to minimise the figures of birds killed by their machines, and some hire contractors to conduct surveys to persuade the public that they are not much of a risk to flying life. Such surveys are hard to do accurately because onshore turbines are in rural areas where the terrain may be rough or covered in vegetation, and scavengers such as foxes and crows will soon remove the remains. It is no use doing a search even once a day, and some surveys are carried out only every three months, but the fewer bodies that are found the better the operator is pleased. It is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that wind farm employees dispose of carcases.

It is extremely hard to find a figure for bird mortality per turbine, which is odd because you would imagine this is a relevant statistic. One study of a single onshore California turbine in 1992 conducted under relatively strict conditions determined that it killed 54 birds a year. This was an old-fashioned design, which may have increased the number of birds killed. Arguably this would be offset by the much greater size of today’s machines, and in any case one bird a week seems a pretty conservative number. Multiplied by 4,781, the projected number of turbines around our shores, this would mean nearly 260,000 deaths a year. Yes, but there are millions of birds, say the wind lobby. There won’t be if they are destroyed at the rate of a quarter of a million a year on top of all the other hazards they face. And many of these casualties are large and rare, such as eagles and storks. At sea, of course, the bodies disappear into the water and there is no satisfactory way of counting them, even if the operators wanted to. Basically, no one knows how many birds are killed, and I would guess that any estimate which comes from the wind lobby can be multiplied by ten and still be way short.

If it were not so serious, it would be hilarious to see the knots the greens tie themselves into as they defend wind power. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (just to emphasise: ‘Protection’) has an entry on its website in which it attempts to reconcile the reality that wind turbines chop up birds on an industrial scale with its determination to promote the message that man-made climate change is much more of a danger to them. These are extracts: 

‘Climate change poses the single greatest long-term threat to birds and other wildlife, and the RSPB recognises the essential role of renewable energy in addressing this problem.

‘The RSPB supports a significant growth in offshore and onshore wind power generation in the UK. 

‘We believe this growth can be achieved in harmony with, rather than at the expense of, the natural environment. However, poorly sited wind farms can have negative effects on birds, leading to potential conflict where proposals coincide with areas of high activity for species of conservation concern. We will therefore continue to require that wind farms are sited, designed and managed so there are no significant adverse impacts on important bird populations or their habitats.

‘If wind farms are located away from major migration routes and important feeding, breeding and roosting areas of those bird species known or suspected to be at risk, it is likely they will have minimal impacts. 

‘We are involved in scrutinising hundreds of wind farm applications every year to determine their likely wildlife impacts, and we ultimately object to about 6 per cent of those we engage with, because they threaten bird populations. Where developers are willing to adapt plans to reduce impacts to acceptable levels we withdraw our objections, in other cases we robustly oppose them. 

‘However, there are gaps in knowledge and understanding of the impacts of wind energy, so the environmental impact of operational wind farms needs to be monitored – and policies and practices need to be adaptable, as we learn more about the impacts of wind farms on birds.’

(I wonder how many times this masterpiece of double-think went through committees before it was finalised.)

It’s worth adding that knowledge about bird migration is still extremely limited, so the RSPB’s talk of ‘major migration routes’ is ingenuous. In any case, what about ‘minor migration routes’?

This is not to mention the number of bats and insects killed by turbines, or the potential impact on marine animals such as whales and dolphins from the noise and vibration, or the fact that on days when there is little or no wind back-up generation will still be needed. A better source of power would be the limitless hot air coming out of Downing Street.

Thanks to Derek Reynolds for his help with this article.

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