28.03.2018 | Green energy and nature in harmony – can that work?

Environmentalists' dilemma

Wind energy is a symbol of the energy future, and regarded positively by most people. However, when it comes to concrete implementation, things get more difficult: Not only for the affected residents in the area of the site, but for nature enthusiasts as well. The elegant giants are a danger for birds and bats.

The Energy Strategy 2050 adopted by Swiss voters on 21 May 2017 is intended to foster the transformation of the Swiss energy system and promote renewable energies. In addition to subsidy measures, Article 12 of the Energy Act is significant here. In the article, renewable energies and their expansion beyond a certain magnitude are designated as being of national interest. What sounds rather banal has great relevance.

New prioritisation of interests

The interest in expanding renewable energies is put on equal terms with other national interests. In concrete terms: It will be possible to erect hydro or wind power plants in areas that fall under the Federal Inventory of Landscapes and Natural Monuments of National Importance (BLN).

For environmentalists this is a painful concession even though natural habitats and sanctuaries remain under absolute protection. Here Pro Natura's statement: "Pro Natura welcomes the stronger protection of natural habitats of national importance from a nature and landscape perspective (...). From a landscape protection perspective, the unnecessary expansion of the range of energy facilities of national importance remains a drawback." In addition: "All projects will, however, be subject to an assessment of interests."

Precisely this assessment of interests – what is more important: The expansion of renewable energies or maintaining certain landscapes? – will certainly keep authorities busy. However, the goal of the new provision is clear: The new weighting will provide better opportunities for the expansion of renewable energies.

Numerous hurdles

Realising wind farms in a small country like Switzerland will remain particularly challenging as different interests collide (article about CKW and wind energy). Problems are not restricted to noise plagued local residents or development: The impacts of wind energy plants on birds and bats are a regular topic.

Wind plants are potentially dangerous to both species. Bats as well as birds can collide with the rotor blades because they cannot see or gauge their movement. When wind conditions are good, the speed at the outer edge of a rotor blade can be over 200 km/h. The strong suction created by rotation can also be fatal for smaller birds and bats.

First concrete results

How big is the problem for birds really? To get a step closer to the answer, the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach conducted a study in the area of the wind power plant Le Peuchapatte (Canton of Jura) on behalf of the Federal Office of Energy. From March to November 2015, the environment around the wind plant was regularly and systematically searched for strike victims. Over the same time period quantitative radar measurements were also carried out in order to see if there was a connection between the intensity of bird migration and the frequency of strike victims. Results showed that there is a connection. However, the issue is much more complex than expected. With a calculated collision rate of nearly 2%, or 20 victims per wind energy plant and year, the victim numbers were higher than expected. These numbers must not be generalised: "The results may be applied to topographically similar areas where migratory birds travel in broad formations and are not dependent on thermal. However, the applicability to alpine locations or locations in central Switzerland are not given," the institute writes in its report.

Location selection as the key factor

The simplest form of minimising danger to birds and bats would be to select locations with the lowest possible occurrence of species, and to especially avoid areas with a concentration of migratory birds. A look at the conflict potential map for migratory birds indicates: In principle, the Alpine region would be best suited. However, the map is based on computer modelling that is rather inaccurate for bird migration in the Alpine region. Furthermore, these areas often lack the required infrastructure such as access roads and drainage, which would make the construction of a wind farm de facto impossible both in terms of costs and the environment.

© Schweizerische Vogelwarte

Furthermore: If one looks at the analogue map for nesting and migrating birds, the picture is totally different:

© Schweizerische Vogelwarte

Therefore, the maps can only serve as an initial, rough orientation aid. As in every larger-scale project, the local circumstances must be examined in order to assess, among other things, the wind project impacts on the environment. Ultimately it is also clear: Conflicts of interest can hardly be avoided and weighing the interests will remain difficult.

The Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach monitors domestic bird life, researches their way of life, and investigates the causes of dangers to bird life. We asked Stefan Werner, Ornithologist and Project Manager of "Wind Energy and Birds" some questions on the topic of wind energy and bird protection.

Stefan Werner, wind energy opponents play up the number of strike victims, while those in favour play down the numbers and point out the greater damage caused by house cats. As an expert, what do you have to say?

A prognosis for all of Switzerland is not possible based on the few, reliable studies on the number of strike victims. Furthermore, the pure number of collision victims alone is not the only dimension for the problems that wind energy plants can pose for individual bird species. Just a few deaths more per year could lead to the extinction of certain birds, particularly long-living birds with low fertility rates, for example the bearded vulture, eagle-owl, and red kite. Pointing out other dangers for birds does not release us from the responsibility of confronting the consequences of wind energy utilisation and the impacts on bird life.

In the study at Le Peuchapatte you found a higher number of strike victims than expected. Does that put wind energy in the Jura hills in question?

For birds, the main problem with wind power plants is the loss of habitat and the disturbances during construction and operation. As in other locations, the problem of collisions also occurs in the Jura. It is essential that every location is looked at carefully and that unsuitable locations are eliminated as options. The goal must be to design wind energy utilisation so that Swiss bird life does not come under even more pressure.

What are the results of your study? Which birds are primarily affected, and what is the reason?

The affected birds are mainly small songbird species that migrate at night – among them all the firecrest and goldcrest species. These are the two smallest European bird species. The reasons are not yet known.

Another topic is the rebalancing measures in order to increase populations in other locations and, in doing so, reduce "losses". What's possible here?

Balancing measures are difficult to implement and rarely promising. Habitats are quickly destroyed, while developing a habitat in another location requires years. Certain habitat elements, for example the traditional mating grounds of the western capercaillie, cannot be replaced. Balancing measures must directly benefit the bird species that has been affected. Putting in a pond to support amphibians is not a balancing measure for songbird casualties in our view.

In your 2013 study, you recommend an operating regime that is adapted to bird migration intensity. Is such a regime already in use in Switzerland?

To our knowledge, so far there is no automatic regime in use that controls wind turbine operation based on bird migration intensity. A device that was developed in cooperation with the Ornithological Institute has not yet been operated in connection with a wind farm.

The new Energy Act erodes the protection of BLN areas. What does that mean for Switzerland as a bird country?

A weighting of interests must still be carried out for wind energy projects after the adoption of the Energy Act and energy harnessing must comply with the legal provisions for nature and landscape protection. The Swiss Ornithological Institute is convinced that wind energy can be used in Switzerland without lengthening the Red List of endangered breeding bird species.

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