Wind Power and Bird Deaths and Frederic Bastiat

Michael Giberson

Wind power gets a lot of criticism for contributing to bird deaths. Reports of bird-turbine collisions lead some environmentalists to withhold support from wind power. You sometimes see free market advocates, who otherwise seem not to get much concerned over the effects of economic activity on wildlife, suddenly quite concerned about wind power’s avian mortality problem. (I haven’t linked to particular stories, but they are widely available. Start here, read all you like.)

It seems a bit like Bastiat’s point about the seen and unseen effects of a policy. It is easy to see the link between wind power and dead birds at the foot of a wind turbine tower, and hard to see the link between fossil fueled generation and dead birds in places far from the coal mines and smokestacks. (If you prefer your literary references to be to current science rather than 18th-century French pamphleteers, imagine that I invoked cognitive biases instead of Bastiat.)

But, if recent analysis of the relationships between electric power generation and bird deaths holds up to further scrutiny, wind power should be celebrated as promoting bird life.  The linked study, just published in the June 2009 issue of Energy Policy, concluded that wind power and nuclear power cause about 0.3 to 0.4 bird deaths per GWh of power generated while fossil fuel-based generation leads to more than 5 bird fatalities per GWh. On average, then, each GWh of wind power displacing fossil fuel power eliminates 4.6 bird fatalities.

To be sure, this conclusion should come with a host of footnotes. First, as author Benjamin Sovacool clearly states in the article, his results should be seen as a preliminary assessment. Limited data was available, and several simplifying assumptions were necessary to arrive at his conclusions. Second, bird mortality effects vary dramatically by site for wind power, so assessment of averages obscures localized differences. Third, assessments of averages also obscures the more-relevant-for-action assessment of marginal effects. Overall, there is much still to be learned about the evironmental impacts of wind turbines. Sovacool’s paper seems a good contribution toward this learning.

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