What You Should Know About the Tension Between Wind Farms and Wildlife

A massive new wind farm, beautiful white blades silently slicing through the air, sucking up clean, locally made energy across the American plains. What could be better for the environment? What environmentalist wouldn’t sleep like a baby knowing such a thing is in the works?

Not so fast.

While green-minded Americans generally applaud the expansion of renewable energy, there are conservationists reminding us that even clean energy development is still development. (See Doris Duke Foundation: Grants for Conservation). The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's wildlife program is explicitly designed to make sure clean energy facilities are built carefully and thoughtfully, and not at the great expense of surrounding animals. 

This is the kind of talk that can make some clean energy advocates pull their hair out. So many projects get stuck in siting quagmires, between utility company resistance to outright NIMBYism. The last thing we need is other environmentalists putting up roadblocks because wind turbines are too close to a preserve. 

But as with all things, balance is key, as The Nature Conservancy reminds us, in a post describing their responsible siting efforts.

"There’s no form of energy that doesn’t have an impact on our planet," says Joe Kiesecker, a lead scientist with The Nature Conservancy. "It just depends on the impact…Wind and solar farms, for example, can have severe impacts on wildlife and their habitats."

While that impact is surely miniscule compared to fossil fuels, killing or displacing a bunch of birds and bats is no good, and certainly doesn’t help anyone's cause.

But it doesn't have to be a battle between clean energy and animal life. Doris Duke is devoting funds to "help ensure that clean-energy facilities are built expeditiously but in a way that does not destroy or fragment wildlife habitat more than necessary."

They currently support Defenders of Wildlife, along with the NRDC and The Wilderness Society, to push smart and sensible siting of renewable energy. The process includes proper environmental review, but also driving development to urban areas to make transmission lower-impact, and already-degraded areas like former industrial areas or abandoned farmlands. 

The Wildlife and Energy Development strategy is one of four in the foundation's environment program, which gave more than $15 million in 2012.

Another initative Doris Duke funds within the wildlife strategy that seems unlikely is building efficiency. With the building sector a massive source of the country’s energy consumption, energy retrofits can curb climate change, while staying out of the flight paths of bald eagles. (Read Environment Program director Andrew Bowman's IP profile).