Even with well-established forms of energy development like oil and gas, the science on impacts to the environment can be hard to quantify and harder to predict. The challenge for sectors like the wind industry – comparatively new in its current form – are even higher given the lack of operational data, but as in other areas, the wind business is sprinting to get ahead.
A number of wind energy industry leaders joined several years ago with major environmental groups to form the American Wind Wildlife Institute, which plays several roles but represents an early effort by the sector to be certain wind energy development remains attractive while assuaging or minimizing concerns about impacts on wildlife.
The organization has several roles, AWWI Director of Research and Evaluation Taber Allison told Breaking Energy in a recent interview following a high-profile request by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for more information on the death of a golden eagle at a California wind farm. Evaluating the impact of wind energy development and operations on birds and bats has been a focus for AWWI since its beginning, but the rareness of an incident involving protected birds like golden and bald eagles make it difficult to know exactly what happened or how to minimize the issue, Allison said.
AWWI is working with the Service to define a research program that would identify a toolbox of options for developers to help minimize risks, in line with the guidance the Service itself has already issued. Allison says he hopes a program will be in place sometime this year.
AWWI’s work is based on scientific research, and in order to do that research it has also had to build ways to collect and share data that hasn’t previously been collected or shared. The group has a landscape assessment tool with more than 700 data layers of species distribution that companies can use to conduct preliminary screenings, and a research information system based on data aggregated from companies and given a layer of security to protect its confidential nature. The RIS isn’t yet operational, but has completed a prototype pilot and is currently undergoing beta testing and data population before public launch.
With the burgeoning data sets on birds and bats impacts still attracting attention but at least underway, the Institute is starting to turn its attention to other species like big game and the general ecosystem. While the presumption is that operational wind farms don’t have the impact of comparable fossil fuel developments, without data it is hard for the industry to make its case, Allison said, citing a recent report that essentially outlines the lack of information available. AWWI will lead in making sure that research is done too, he added.