Wildlife-friendly Wind

OK, maybe “Turbines for Trashed Landscapes” wouldn’t be the right slogan. But a new analysis concludes the U.S. could get all the windpower it wants by building wind farms on “disturbed” lands that don’t have much value for wildlife.

U.S. officials have a set a goal of using windpower to produce 20% of the nation’s electricity by 2030, researchers from American environmental groups and universities note in PLoSOne. But building turbines in the windiest, most promising sites often creates environmental conflicts; the big blades can kill birds and bats, for instance, and the “increase in fragmentation and habitat loss associated with development… creates an important conservation challenge.”

That challenge got some biologists thinking: Why not build wind farms in places we’ve already trashed, such as oil, gas and farm fields, or at old mines and existing roads? To see if there was enough of this “disturbed” land to meet the 20% goal, the researchers looked at land use maps and windpower data, and then calculated how much land would be needed to produce the needed power in 31 key states.

Overall, they concluded that there is “ample opportunity” to meet the 20% goal “in areas likely to have relatively low wildlife value.” They estimated, for instance, that disturbed land could absorb a network of land-based turbines capable of producing 3,554 gigawatts of electricity – far more than the 241 gigawatts that DOE estimates the U.S. will need. Twelve of the states, however, don’t have enough to disturbed land to meet their wind goals(they are CA, AZ, NV, UT, WV, PA, VA, NC, TN, MD, MI & TN. But that problem could be reduced by packing turbines into states that have plenty of room. And, overall, the researchers estimate that “a disturbance-focused development strategy would avert the development of 2.3 million hectares of undisturbed lands.”

What’s need now, they add, are policies that make it cheaper to build turbines on trashed lands – and more expensive to plop them in prime habitats. Such policies, they conclude, “could improve public value for both wind energy and biodiversity conservation.” David Malakoff | April 15, 2011

Source: Kiesecker, J., Evans, J., Fargione, J., Doherty, K., Foresman, K., Kunz, T., Naugle, D., Nibbelink, N., & Niemuth, N. (2011). Win-Win for Wind and Wildlife: A Vision to Facilitate Sustainable Development. PLoS ONE, 6 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017566

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