Wind energy contributed 2.4% to the U.S. electricity supply in 2010. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), wind capacity increased from 2.6 gigawatts (GW) to 40 GW in the period 2000 through 2010, an indication that the industry is growing significantly in the U.S. Furthermore, new wind installations totaled 10 GW in 2008 and 5 GW in 2010, constituting 29% and 25%, respectively, of all electric capacity additions in those years (Hand et al. 2012). The NREL study found that the country’s wind resource (estimated to be at least 10,000 GW for the continental U.S.), combined with other renewable sources, is more than adequate to supply 80% of projected electricity demand in 2050.
Generating electricity by capturing wind energy has many advantages over fossil fuels; among these is a lack of carbon dioxide (CO2) and CO2-equivalent emissions. All known energy sources come with some challenges, however. Using renewable sources such as wind to provide 80% of the electricity supply by 2050 would involve significant hurdles, including technological issues surrounding energy storage and transmission. Politics, societal attitudes, market factors, and environmental trade-offs also play important roles.
The potential negative environmental impacts of wind energy range from noise and changes to viewsheds to cultural and natural resource concerns. The effects of wind energy on wildlife – and birds and bats in particular – have attracted considerable attention. Much of this attention in the U.S. originated from an early commercial-scale wind energy facility in Altamont Pass, California, where there was a high number of raptor fatalities at this facility in the late 1980s (see Strickland et al. 2011 for a historical perspective). There have been drastic improvements in turbine design, facility operations, and siting in the past 25 years. Research has also shown that wind turbine collisions are responsible for many fewer bird deaths than other anthropogenic causes. Wildlife impacts have continued to be a high-profile issue in wind energy development, however. Concerns are due, in part, to the potential for cumulative impacts as the number of turbines on the landscape increases.
Post-construction monitoring of impacts to wildlife from wind energy facilities is an important tool for verifying predicted impacts based on pre-construction studies. It also increases the data available for siting projects in a way that minimizes impacts. Post-construction studies are not always necessary, but until recently, criteria for determining whether such studies are appropriate have been inconsistent. Where post-construction studies have been done, the approach to monitoring has varied, and whether the data are shared with permitting agencies or with the public has also been variable. Without post-construction monitoring – and without sharing of results with other stakeholders – the wildlife impact predictions on which wind energy siting is partially based cannot be supported or refuted and thus cannot evolve efficiently. Under these circumstances, the agencies charged with protecting wildlife resources will perpetually feel compelled to ask for more studies, and project developers will continually feel flummoxed by an undefined finish line.
We report here on a study in which we examined the barriers to, and opportunities for, post construction wildlife monitoring. The study focused on wind energy facilities in the Great Lakes region (including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). Through this report we seek to improve understanding of the factors that limit collection and sharing of post-construction monitoring data and recognition of incentives that might overcome those limitations. Our overall goal is to help ensure that future decision-making is scientifically based and regionally relevant, while supporting development of the region’s wind energy industry.