Wind farms generate electricity without burning fossil fuels, emitting harmful air emissions or consuming massive quantities of water. But what about impacts to birds? A major renewable energy project proposed for the Southeast has completed a comprehensive environmental study and found wind farms are likely to have a net positive impact on the environment.
Plains and Eastern Clean Line, the largest renewable energy project proposed for the Southeast, will bring huge amounts of cheap wind energy to our region. The 700-mile transmission line project will connect more than 3,500 megawatts of high quality, low cost wind power from Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle into Arkansas, Tennessee, and into the rest of the Southeast. This project will provide incredible benefits, including protecting our natural resources and providing health benefits by decreasing pollution from fossil-fuel generation in our region.
Of course, any project this large is bound to have an impact on the environment, so the real question is how big is the environmental impact, and do its environmental benefits outweigh the impacts? That’s why the project went through a federal environmental impact statement process conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that exhaustively covers just about any impact the project may have, including avian impacts. In December of last year, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project was released and the DOE “did not identify widespread significant impacts as a result of construction or operations and maintenance of the Project.”
Overall, wind energy does not cause population level threats to birds and accounts for an extremely small percentage of unnatural avian mortality. A study in Energy Policy, found that fossil-fueled power plants, on a per unit of energy basis, are estimated to kill 17 times more birds than wind energy. So for every megawatt hour of electricity from a wind farm that replaces fossil fuels, seventeen times as many birds may be saved.
Coal, oil, and other fossil fuel energy sources have major individual impacts on bird populations, but together these carbon-emitting fuels are the major driver of climate change–one of the greatest threats to bird populations according to a study by the National Wildlife Federation.
In fact, the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project will reduce harmful air emissions. As noted in the EIS, the project would displace other forms of energy usage, like coal or natural gas powered generation. Over the lifespan of the project, it is estimated that Clean Line will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 13 million tons. That’s equivalent to removing 2.7 million cars from the road annually. (As an aside, studies show cars kill up to 340 million birds per year - or about 1,000x more than wind farms).
Of course, no electricity project is completely void of environmental impacts and moving forward, Clean Line will continue to monitor the potential impacts and conduct studies to assist with mitigation efforts. In 2014, Clean Line Energy Partners released plans for an avian program that would “advance progress towards electric transmission systems that are safer for all avian species.”
It’s clear that the Plains and Eastern Clean Line has the opportunity to save more birds than it harms by displacing traditional energy sources and creating a healthier and cleaner environment for the Southeast.
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