Bats endangered by offshore wind farms

Ben Alexandro
Issue date: 11/18/08 Section: Mosaic
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Marilyn Kitchell tags a Big Brown Bat in Basking Ridge, N.J.

Media Credit: Ben Alexandro
Marilyn Kitchell tags a Big Brown Bat in Basking Ridge, N.J.

Late one night in the summer of 2007, three interns pull rubber waders up to their chests, strap LED lamps to their heads and wade through a swampy stream in Basking Ridge, N.J., toward the mist nets. They are following the blond pony tail of Marilyn Kitchell as it swishes back and forth just above its own rippling reflection. As the first rays of the moon make the dew-draped hickory leaves begin to glow, a tiny, dark figure careens across the edge of their lights, and they just barely make out a winged fur smudge collide head first into the nothingness and float, delicately suspended in the midnight air.

“Looks like we caught another bat,” whispers Kitchell, a William Patterson University graduate student who is doing her thesis on federally endangered Indiana bats.

As they approach, the headlamps illuminate a 10-meter-high net, suspended by makeshift flag poles along the swampy stream, with a small, chittering ball of fur tangled in its soft, strands.

It may seem odd that an animal that can echolocate the width of a human hair and outmaneuver more than 1,000 mosquitoes an hour in its endless quest to rid the world of human and agricultural pests would fall for such a cheap trick.

“We only catch the dumb ones,” intern Michael Whitby says.

In reality, Kitchell says many bats are so used to flying over the open body of water, they don’t bother with echolocation. They just rely on their sight.

Kitchell carefully untangles the bat, places it in a bag clipped to the top of her waders and heads for base camp in the woods approximately a football field away from the net. Base camp consists of a half dozen lawn chairs, data sheets, an antenna and an orange tool box. There, they weigh the bat, tag it, look for mites and identify the species. This particular specimen is a red bat, Lasiurus borealis, named for its brilliant, fiery mahogany color and surprisingly soft fur.

“Red bats always remind me of Eddie Munster,” Kitchell says as she clamps a small mark and recapture band around the winged arm of the mammal that is cuddled up and shivering in her gloved hand.

Kitchell sees the resemblance in the bat’s widow’s peak fur line above the eyes, and tiny sharp teeth. As data is recorded on one of the night’s bats, Whitby describes how he accepted a job working in New York at a wind farm researching the effects of turbines on bat mortality. He says scientists have researched turbines that kill migrating birds, but not nearly enough research has been done on bats.

That summer in Delaware, Bluewater Wind finalized its contract to build a wind farm of 70, 130-meter-tall turbines 13 miles off the coast of Delaware. After a 59 percent rate hike in state energy prices, state legislators passed House Bill 6. This consumer retail act mandated the creation of a new power plant within the state of Delaware. Conectiv Energy, NRG Energy and Bluewater Wind all fought for the right to provide that extra energy to Delmarva. Coal plants had recently been linked to cancer clusters in Delaware and mercury poisoning of fisheries. Bluewater won the battle and boasted that its plan would bring green, renewable, environmentally friendly energy to Delmarva by 2014. Bluewater Wind’s Web site features a movie montage of the offshore wind farms in Denmark that it studied extensively for more than a decade before undertaking the project.

According to the Web site, “There were no significant negative impacts found on fish, flora and fauna.” Delaware Audubon Society Conservation Group is showcased in supporting the project, saying it’s safe for birds.

This summer, scientists across the country made a startling realization. Wind turbines were killing bats by the thousands.

After working as a thermal imaging bat field technician, Whitby says the site he worked at killed more than 6,000 bats per summer – each turbine killed approximately 1.8 bats per night. The confounding part, he says, was most of these bats were found without any external sign of injury.

Thomas Kunz, a professor at University of Kansas and an expert on bats and the environmental impacts of wind energy, says bats can often maneuver around the turbine blades. However, the sudden pressure vortexes around the blades cause bats’ fragile lungs to explode.

“The numbers of mortalities are actually underestimated,” Kunz says. “Some bats may be mortally wounded but still able to fly away from the wind farm before they die.”

Ed Arnett, a conservation scientist specializing in wind energy at Bat Conservation International says, “Off shore, we have hardly any information at all. The real story is that scientists don’t have the data. I am not willing to speculate beyond that.”

However, one report published by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency in July 2007 is compelling and frightening, Arnett says, because it cites 3,830 bats were killed over the sea. According to the report, “The bats did not avoid the turbines.”

“There is no way to know how many bats would die and suddenly fall into the water,” Kunz says.

He says there is evidence suggesting that the offshore wind turbines Bluewater proposed to build would attract bats, causing them to die.

Out of the nine species of bats in Delaware, the red bat, hoary bat and silver bat must migrate south in the fall. They have been recorded to migrate many miles off the coast and could easily find huge white offshore turbines against the night sky. Migrating bats are known to stop and roost on ships at sea to rest and may see the turbines as huge roost trees.

While wind turbines are luring bats to die, a mysterious White Nose Syndrome killed 90 to 100 percent of the six bat species roosting in caves last winter. Thousands of hibernating bats starved to death with a ring of mysterious white fungus around their noses.

“Between Wind turbines and WNS, all nine species of bats in Delmarva are taking a beating,” Kunz says.

According to one of Kunz’s reports, bats provided up to $1.73 million in pest control in the $5 million market of agricultural cotton farming in a small eight-county area of Texas.

Without bats, more pesticides will most likely need to be used to control West Nile Virus and the explosions in the populations of human agricultural pests. The pesticides then wash into streams, kill fish and ruin ecosystems. The insects that the bats eat will soon develop resistances to the pesticides and wreak havoc here in Delaware.

The Clean Energy Office of Delaware gave funding to the university for an in-depth regulatory analysis of Bluewater’s project. Willett Kempton, a professor in the university’s College of Marine Studies, declined to comment on the wind farm beyond what he had already told The New York Times.

“One of the first things Kempton and his class did was go down the list of clean-energy options for Delaware,” according to The New York Times. “What he found was that Delaware’s coastal winds were capable of producing a year-round average output of over 5,200 megawatts, or four times the average electrical consumption of the entire state.”

Scott Baker is one of Kempton’s graduate students at the university who is researching how state policies will affect wind farms. He was a marine biology major as an undergraduate, but when he traveled to Denmark to see the artificial reefs and fish habitat the wind turbines had created around their offshore wind farms, he immersed himself in the university’s offshore wind study.

“I love Bluewater’s project,” he says.

The project should bring 300,000 people in Delmarva wind-powered energy. Although the price for energy would initially raise by 70 cents per month, unlike gas or coal, the price would remain stable for 25 years, he says.

Despite possible benefits from wind power, Kunz says, “As wind turbines are right now, they are definitely not very green.”

Peak bat migration occurs when the wind is only five to six miles an hour, but even wind turning at that speed can create deadly bat lung exploding vortexes. Kunz proposed turning the blades at a 45 degree angle so they wouldn’t spin at all during the height of bat migration. He says this could reduce mortality by 50 to 70 percent, and the economic outcome could be interesting.

“Bluewater might actually come out ahead,” Kunz says, “because they could market the energy as being even greener than it was before.”

Bluewater published a wildlife fact sheet in 2004 about the effects of wind turbines on bats and birds. The fact sheet states, “As significant additional wind development is planned in this area, overall bat impacts have the potential to become very substantial.”

However, this fact sheet also states, “Wind energy’s ability to generate electricity without many of the environmental impacts associated with other energy sources can significantly benefit birds, bats and other animals.” Whether Bluewater wind turbines will actually become bat safe is yet to be seen.

“The bat issue came up at the last Bluewater wind meeting we just had in Virginia, but bats were not a big topic and there wasn’t much focus given to it,” Baker says.

This belittling of a previously overlooked problem may lead to the needless slaughter of thousands of bats and endanger a natural pest regulator in the ecosystem.

“Lots of things eat insects, but bats are unique in consuming millions of night-flying insects, like mosquitoes and agricultural pests,” Kitchell says. “There are a lot of misconceptions about bats being creepy, but without them, millions or billions of insects they would consume will now be in the environment.”

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