A cornerstone of Germany’s energy policy is replacing fossil and nuclear energy sources for electricity production with renewable sources such as sun, wind, biomass, and water.
Among these, the production of wind energy is the most significant component. However, wind-based energy production is not essentially ecologically sustainable. It requires comparatively large spaces for turbine installation and operation, and birds and bats die after bumping into rotors in huge numbers.
Therefore, the location and running of wind energy plants are generally in direct conflict with the legal protection of endangered animals. The virtually undisputed opinion of experts from local and central government authorities, expert offices, and environmental NGOs is that the existing mechanisms for the protection of bats in wind power projects are inadequate.
This is one conclusion from a survey conducted by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) reported in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy.
Over 500 representatives of different stakeholders (expert groups) involved in the environmental impact assessment of wind turbines participated in the Leibniz-IZW survey. This group included consultants, employees of conservation agencies and government authorities, employees of wind energy companies, representatives of non-governmental organizations in the conservation sector, and scientists undertaking research on renewable energies or on biodiversity.
The survey looked at assessments on the contribution of wind energy to the conversion of the energy system, on ecologically sustainable installation and running of wind turbines and on probable solutions for the trade-off between dealing with climate change and safeguarding biological diversity.
We found both significant discrepancies and broad consensus among participants. The overwhelming majority of respondents confirmed that there is a direct conflict between green electricity and bat protection. Most importantly, they considered the protection of biodiversity to be just as important as the contribution to protect the global climate through renewable energy production.
Christian Voigt, Department Head, Leibniz-IZW
Voigt is the first author of the survey. The majority of stakeholders came to a consensus that small-to-moderate losses in the yield of wind power plants with regards to electricity production and in financial terms set off by the consistent application of conservation laws must become the norm. It is necessary to compensate for the possible shutdown periods in electricity production.
We will probably have to accept a higher price of green electricity for the purpose of the effective protection of bats in order to compensate for the shutdown times of wind turbines. This does not address the unsolved issue of how to deal with habitat loss, especially when wind turbines are placed in forests.
Christian Voigt, Department Head, Leibniz-IZW
The disagreement between wind power projects and the goals of biological conservation deepened in the last few years because the quickly increasing number of wind plants—at present, there are about 30,000 on mainland Germany—has made appropriate locations deficient. Consequently, more and more new plants are being set up in areas where conflicts with wildlife and the protection of wildlife are more probable, for instance, in forests.
According to members of conservation authorities, only about 25 % of wind turbines are operated under mitigation schemes such as temporary halt of wind turbine operation during periods of high bat activity (for example during the migration season), at relatively low wind speeds and at high air temperatures even though the legal framework that protects bats would require the enforcement of such measures.
Marcus Fritze, Study Author, Leibniz-IZW
Furthermore, from the survey, it became evident that members of the wind energy industry hold different views on some aspects of the green-green dilemma than those of other expert groups.
Fritze added, “Representatives of the wind energy industry consider compliance with climate protection targets as more important than measures to protect species. All other expert groups disagree with this notion. A consistent dialogue between all participants therefore seems particularly important in order to enable ecologically sustainable wind energy production.”
The survey also revealed that
- Over 95% of respondents feel the conversion of the energy system (“Energiewende”) to be important.
- All expert groups came to a consensus on aiming for an ecologically sustainable energy shift.
- Two-thirds of stakeholders in the wind energy industry were of the view that wind energy production should be promoted more powerfully than energy production from other renewable sources; however, 85% of representatives from the other stakeholders did not agree with this.
- Of the survey participants, 86% of them not belonging to the wind energy sector gave green electricity no higher priority than the protection of wildlife, while just 4% of representatives of the wind sector industry shared this opinion (nearly half were unsure or consider wind power to be more significant than biodiversity protection).
For this survey, the authors chose bats as a representative group of species for all animals affected by wind turbines, because numerous bats die at turbines and they are highly protected both internationally and nationally, and thus play a crucial role in planning and approval processes for wind turbines.
The high collision rates of bats at wind turbines may be pertinent to whole bat populations. The common noctule is a repeated victim of wind turbines; this species is rated as dwindling by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in Germany.
Moreover, the results of long-term research in the department headed by Voigt at the Leibniz-IZW reveal that the losses have an impact on local bat population as well as migrating species. Therefore, fatalities at wind turbines in Germany impact bat populations in Germany, as well as populations in other European regions from where these bats come.
Based on the survey results, the authors debate in support of a stronger consideration of nature conservation goals in the wind energy industry and for an appreciation of the objectives of the conservation of biological diversity. They propose ways in which the collaboration of those involved in the planning and operation of wind power projects can be enhanced, so that both wind energy production and the objectives of biological conservation can be fulfilled.