People with binoculars stationed around a wind farm in Wyoming spotted just 17 out of 100 birds flying nearby that a battery of computer-driven cameras was able to “see” with their electronic eyes.

The camera system, within a half a second of spotting each bird, could tell whether it was an eagle with over 90 percent accuracy. That compared to 70 percent accuracy for the eyes of human spotters.

The trials have been so promising that Duke Energy bought 24 of the IdentiFlight units to anchor a smart curtailment strategy at its Top of the World site in Glenrock. The project was previously handed a $1 million federal fine in 2013 for fatal collisions with birds, including 14 golden eagles.

The network of IdentiFlight units will detect eagles, and then shut down only those turbines being approached by an eagle. Duke hopes to avoid excessive curtailment of other turbines on the 110-turbine site when an eagle is nowhere near them. Before, the whole project would shut down regardless of the risk of a collision.

Someday such wholesale curtailments — and their impact on certain wind electricity generating plants, a leading sustainable climate solution that benefits all birds and humans — will be a relic of the past.

Ten years into the industry-conservation collaboration organization known as the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI), research is moving from the laboratory to commercialization, so operators can do what helps wildlife the most on their wind farms — possibly even deter birds and bats from approaching in the first place.

AWWI is now working with IdentiFlight and the U.S. Department of Energy to widen testing to locations beyond Wyoming.

Meanwhile, another company, DTBird, has experimented with an escalating series of warning signals to ward off birds from coming near.

At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, they’re working on a similar theory applied to bats. Whistles based on certain bat species’ own larynxes are being developed for mounting on wind blades without disrupting the energy produced.

Researchers at NRG Systems of Hinesburg, Vermont have shown that the right mix of ultrasound frequencies can deter bats from feeding on nearby ponds during times of operation. Now they need a delivery system suited to wind turbines. The challenges include getting the highest frequencies out to the tip of the wind blade, as well as wide variability among different species and populations of bats.

Research continues into how turbines and towers can be made to look different from bats’ usual roosting places and sources of food and water. Now in the early stages of testing is a system that would use shifting or flickering ultraviolet light that humans can’t see, but that bats can detect.

Wind project operators spend a great deal of money to survey the ground around turbines to identify any birds or bats that may have died from colliding with them. Yet until now the resulting data has remained unpublished within each respective company, with no way to analyze it across species, regions, or projects located across the country.

AWWI is solving this problem through a new shared, protected database called the American Wind Wildlife Information Center (AWWIC). Already the largest database of post-construction fatality data in the U.S., AWWIC includes both confidential and public information from wind farms nationwide. It provides the first opportunity for comprehensive analyses of wind and wildlife interaction across North America.

Patterns in the data will help target investments to where they can do the most good, and cut costs.

Only if such research is adequately funded can it result in the products and procedures we need for wind energy to keep growing to its full potential and provide the greatest benefits to consumers and our environment.

America’s wind turbines have succeeded beyond their inventors’ wildest dreams. One of the last things the Bush administration did in 2008 was to issue a vision for the growth of wind energy in our country. It projected wind electricity generation growing from 1 percent then to 20 percent of America’s electricity by 2030.

Skeptics said this was too aspirational a target. But after five years, America had installed 61 gigawatts of wind energy instead of the 48 gigawatts projected, and brought costs down to $45 per megawatt-hour versus the $66 per megawatt-hour projected. So the Department of Energy during the Obama administration revised its projections and issued a new Wind Vision report in March 2015 to capture the latest market dynamics, technology and demand.

Today four states are already over 30 percent wind-powered, and 14 states are over 10 percent. Wind continues to add capacity fast despite flat demand for electricity overall, because both corporate and retail consumers around the country want new sources that minimize the impact to their wallets and to the environment. Wind is the cleanest, fastest, cheapest way to meet the growing electricity needs of our country, and to meet aggressive sustainability goals that have rippled from international treaties to corporate boardrooms following consumer demands.

Community acceptance has not been a major limiting factor to new wind energy generation installation. Developers and local leaders have increased their understanding of how to work together to maximize the benefits to their area while ensuring that nearby landowners are properly respected. Responsible siting and local collaboration tends to lower development hurdles for expansion phases of existing wind farms, as well as new projects.

What we do in the wind industry has some impact on wildlife and the environment just like any other human activity, but given who we are and what we stand for, it is important to understand that we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard.

Development of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wind Energy Guidelines was the outcome of unprecedented collaboration. Stakeholders from different sectors came together to create an agreement that guides the siting and operating of wind turbines to avoid and minimize wildlife impacts.

"By collaborating with conservationists instead of slugging it out, the wind power industry gains vital support to expand and create jobs, and wildlife gets the protection crucial for survival,” said David Yarnold, who was president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. 

So while wildlife conservation has not yet been a limiting factor, it remains a looming risk for the industry. We need to continue to be active players in the energy sector in making sure the new megawatt-hours are produced with the lowest possible impact to wildlife so we can continue to be the best environmental solution.

Machine detection and deterrent technologies exhibit great potential, but we are finding that the government does not have the resources to assess these technologies within their actual time to market.

This is not a nuclear plant that takes two decades to develop. Wind energy has the shortest time to market in the energy sector, much shorter than a gas facility, coal-fired plant, nuclear or even a biomass plant. Wind energy can be produced much faster than it can be permitted.

Developers have limited resources, and in some cases we have to live with uncertainty, because an incidental take permit or an eagle permit can take years to get.

An estimated 60 permit applications have been submitted but only two have been issued — meanwhile, developers are taking on substantial risk by proceeding with construction and operation. That’s not an ideal situation.

We are an industry that stands for cheap and non-polluting electricity to help reduce the carbon footprint of the energy sector. We need to be sure we are an active player in finding new tools so that our technology always has far lower impacts than the incumbent one.

For that we need continued research, and commercialization of the subsequent technology, so we have the solutions we need when we need them.

As the major players in the industry draw up our company budgets for 2019, we must provide for that ongoing research to keep the growth of wind energy on track.


Gabriel Alonso is executive chairman of ConnectGEN LLC and executive in residence at Quantum Energy Partners, a leading provider of private equity capital to the global energy industry. He was CEO of the fourth-largest wind energy operator, EDP Renewables North America, for nine years, and is a past chair of the board of directors of the American Wind Energy Association.