Could painting wind turbine blade improve bird safety?

A new study examines whether painting a blade of a wind turbine black instead of the traditional white color would increase bird safety. (Courtesy: PacifiCorp)

A study was done to determine if painting a turbine blade black instead of the traditional white color would increase bird safety.

The study, which will be led jointly by the U.S. Geological Survey Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute, U.S., will be led the western utility PacifiCorp. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Some research shows that painting a turbine blade black allows birds see the blades and keeps them away.

Researchers in Norway published a paper in 2020 describing a 72% decrease in turbine blade-related bird deaths. This was due to a simple manipulation: one turbine blade was painted black.

The Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute, previously the American Wind Wildlife Institute,  summarized the results of the 2020 study in a research brief, developed with support from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and U.S. Department of Energy.

However, the 2020 study was done at one location and involved only four of the 68 turbines being painted.

“As we increase renewable energy resources, applying this approach to the Mountain West, where more wind projects will be built, has the potential to both protect wildlife and advance clean energy,” said Travis Brown, PacifiCorp’s director of wind compliance and permitting.

The study will be held at PacifiCorp’s Glenrock or Rolling Hills project in Glenrock, Wyoming. Each site features 158 General Electric turbines that are more than 250 feet tall.

The study will last several years and build on existing PacifiCorp data regarding bird interactions with wind-turbines.

Due to FAA regulations on lighting and marking wind turbines in order to protect air traffic, researchers received special permission from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

PacifiCorp stated that the study will begin in the next few months.

Golden eagle (Courtesy: Syed Ahmad/Unsplash)

Wind operators are exposed to legal and financial risks when it comes to bird safety.

In April, NextEra Energy placed a unit on probation and was fined. This was in connection to golden eagles that were killed by wind turbine blades.

ESI Energy pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. After the deaths of several golden eagles as a result of blunt force trauma, the company pleaded guilty. Justice said that the incidents occurred in Wyoming and New Mexico, where the company hadn’t applied for the necessary permits.

DOJ reported that 150 golden eagles have died in ESI Energy wind farm since 2012, and that 136 birds have died as a result of wind turbine blade strikes.

ESI Energy was penalized $1.8 million as part of the April 5 settlement and must pay $6.2 Million in restitution.

The company is also on probation for five years and must implement an Eagle Management Plan to reduce eagle deaths or injuries. DOJ stated that an EMP could cost up to $27million to provide compensatory mitigation.

Edward Grace, U.S. Assistant Director. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Office of Law Enforcement said that the settlement holds ESI responsible for “years of inability to work collaboratively with the agency” and “their blatant disregard of the wildlife laws.”

NextEra released a statement criticizing the DOJ’s enforcement on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. NextEra stated that the agency “has attempted to criminalize unavoidable incidents.”

“The reality of building any structure, driving any vehicle or flying any aircraft carries with them the possibility that accidental eagle-and other bird collisions might occur as a consequence,” NextEra Energy Resources president, CEO Rebecca Kujawa explained.

Kujawa supported NextEra’s investments into avian mitigation efforts. He said that the settlement with DOJ was “most expedient solution” and allowed NextEra to concentrate on developing more wind farm.

NextEra believes that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is intended and not accidental acts against wildlife.

Jared Wigginton is an environmental and energy lawyer. He said that the DOJ-NextEra agreement highlights a broken system to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. NextEra is also alleged having violated these laws. NextEra, due to its market share and size, was likely to be the target of DOJ enforcement activities, even though other companies have also failed to obtain eagle-take permits.

Wigginton stated, “Companies would rather play the dice on possible enforcement actions than go through a costly and tedious process of obtaining and complying with eagle takes permits under Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.” Renewable Energy World. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other big players in DOJ’s crosshairs right now.”

Last October, Wigginton wrote in Renewable Energy World about the lack of an incidental take program under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.