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Fossil Fuel Power Plants Kill 35x More Birds Than Wind Turbines
One of the most effective ways to protect birds is to transition away from fossil fuels
Over the last year, I've been tracking and reporting on more than 50 clean energy opposition Facebook groups. In this reporting, I've seen one argument over and over: Wind energy is bad because it kills birds. I’ve seen dozens of images of birds killed by wind turbines and links to studies on the topic.
As I've written in past stories, these images and posts can have real-world impacts. They change voters’ minds. And they can turn clean energy supporters into passionate opponents.
But there's a problem with the bird argument. It fails to put the number of birds killed by wind turbines in context. Given that wind energy is an alternative to fossil fuel energy, we also must ask: How many birds do fossil fuel power plants kill?
In 2012, researchers at Vermont Law School set out to answer this question. Let’s take a look at what they found.
Fossil fuel power plants kill 35 times more birds per GWh of electricity produced than wind turbines. But even this figure understates the true harm caused by fossil fuels.
Coal, gas, and oil power plants are still far more prevalent globally than wind energy. Therefore, the total impact on bird populations—as opposed to the per unit of electricity impact—is much greater. The study’s authors estimate that fossil fuel electricity generation kills 24 million birds per year.
So how do fossil fuel power plants kill birds?
Mining for coal and other fossil fuels requires activities like mountaintop removal. This results in habitat loss. A 2004 study found that mountaintop removal for coal mining destroyed 387,000 acres of mature deciduous forests. The authors estimated that this resulted in the death of 191,722 Cerulean Warblers.
Burning fossil fuels also causes acid rain, which directly and indirectly harms birds. As an example, a 2002 study found that acid rain caused the wood thrush population to decline in the United States by 2% to 5%.
But the greatest harm that fossil fuels cause birds comes in the form of climate change. A recent study by the National Audubon Society found that two-thirds of all North American bird species are at risk of extinction due to climate change.
All of this led the authors of the study visualized above to conclude, “The wider use of wind energy can save wildlife and birds as it displaces more harmful sources of electricity.”
Put another way: The best way to protect birds is to displace fossil fuels.
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