Stop Killing Birds: Is This an Environmental Fallacy About Wind Farms?

Developers of wind farms have had to deal with a big “not in my backyard” push-back...but it isn't founded in science.

Reuben Gregg Brewer
Reuben Gregg Brewer
Apr 29, 2014 at 12:36PM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

Xcel Energy (NASDAQ:XEL) is making a big push into wind power. On one level that's great news for the environment, but don't expect the shift to be smooth sailing. Birds are getting in the way, right?

A big shift
About a decade ago, wind power made up just 3% of Xcel Energy's power mix. Coal was 56%. Wind makes up around 15% of the mix today, and the company plans to get that to 22% by 2020. Coal will be the big loser, with its share of the pie falling by 13 percentage points over the span.

This should be welcome news to those wishing to save the environment from the evils of carbon and other pollutants. However, nothing is ever easy. A case in point is Power Company of Wyoming's Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project. This project is an "up to 1,000-turbine wind farm to be located south of Sinclair and Rawlins in Carbon County, Wyoming."

(Source: Kwerdenker, via Wikimedia Commons)

The only problem is that protesters don't like what the wind farms will do to the environment, and it's holding out bird deaths as a signature issue. It's an easy one to rally behind. Who wants to see innocent little birds mauled by the spinning blades of a wind turbine? The visual appearance of wind turbines, which is almost always an issue, too, seems to take a back seat.

The funny thing about the bird angle is that it may not be true. According to research out of the U.S. Forest Service, wind turbines account for less than 1% of bird deaths a year. The biggest culprit at nearly 60%? Buildings. It seems like the birds may just be a convenient rallying cry and legal angle, since some birds, like eagles, are protected by law.

What hurts you hurts me
In Xcel Energy's efforts to expand its wind power sources, it's spending big bucks and venturing far afield. For example, in 2013 it announced plans to buy wind power from wind farms in Oklahoma, Texas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and New Mexico. These projects are backed by 20-year contracts with companies like NextEra Energy (NYSE:NEE).

These projects underpin Xcel's long-term plans. Not only does it impact the company's power portfolio, but it also has an effect on costs. According to Xcel, the projects in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico will save it nearly $600 million in fuel costs over the 20-year lives of the contracts. That's not chump change. And the alternative is to keep burning coal, which bird lovers would probably consider an undesirable outcome, as well.

(Source: Paul Lenz, via Wikimedia Commons)

NextEra Energy, which owns Florida Power and Light, is building out its own renewable footprint and, as the deal with Xcel shows, selling power to competitors. It's using its renewable expertise to build a wholesale power business with a clean energy twist. Twenty-year deals are a pretty solid foundation for this segment.

In 2013, the company built 375 megawatts (MW) of wind power, "and signed more than 1,100 MW of new power purchase agreements." According to NextEra, the wholesale renewable business was up 10% last year. For comparison, NextEra reported that performance at its traditional utility business, Florida Power and Light, improved by around 6.5%. Underpinning the growth on the wholesale side, "was new additions to our renewables portfolio."

Growth will be harder to come by if NextEra has to fight questionable bird fatality statistics. Every legal challenge brings with it costs and delays. And the follow-on effect will be higher costs and delays for customers like Xcel.

The future is...slow
As more wind farms are built, look for opposition to increase. That could be a problem for wind proponents like Xcel and NextEra. It won't stop them in their reach for more wind power, but it will delay projects and increase costs. Both of which can make wind less desirable—but I guess that's the point of claiming that turbines will kill massive numbers of birds even if research doesn't appear to back up the claim.