Impacts of Energy Development

Jodi Alishouse

As the population grows and shows little to no signs of stopping, the demand for energy continues to increase. Along with the surge in population and demand, the use of alternative energy has also grown, resulting in a rapid increase of energy development. This development of alternative energy sources can have adverse ramifications on wildlife and ecosystems. 

A common issue that occurs between energy development and wildlife is land use; both use the same land for different purposes, many of which overlap. Not only does this cause conflict between political affiliations and residents, both of which are opinionated, but it can also cause detrimental, and often fatal impacts on wildlife and their habitats. 

There are five individual energy sectors that have been driving forces in the alternative energy industry: bioenergy, solar and biothermal, unconventional oil and gas, and wind. All of these have different forms of implementation and different impacts on their surrounding environments. With proper management and mitigation efforts, the alternative energy industry has many opportunities to be sustainably developed. 

Unspecific to the type of alternative energy source that is being implemented, there are several changes that are more than likely to occur and affect wildlife. These can vary from changes in animal behavior, resource use, population dynamics, interspecific interactions, energetics and nutrition, and overall distribution. These changes can cause permanent and harmful effects on the local plant and animal communities. 

Out of the energy sources listed, the most impactful is wind, followed by bioenergy, hydroelectric power, unconventional oil and gas, solar, and finally geothermal. Wind farms, the plots of land that are designated to place a multitude of wind turbines to produce energy, are associated with high mortality rates when it comes to bat and bird populations. This occasional decrease in population may not be enough to actually affect the population dynamics of standard passerine species (e.g. robins, sparrows, finches, etc.), but when it comes to birds of prey (e.g. falcons, osprey, hawks, etc.) that is a different story. Birds of prey tend to live longer, therefore they reproduce less and even slight changes in their population numbers can cause problems for their species. Bats often pay a greater price because wind turbines are challenging for them to spot when they are active during the night. There have been reports of up to 47 bat carcasses collected around a wind farm of 44 turbines over an eight-month period. 

The more serious concern facing bird populations involving wind farms is habitat loss. Some wind farm workers have even reported less than half of the typical bird species surrounding the wind farms, scientists believe this is due to the habitat loss that the wind farm infrastructure requires. This is a problem that comes with any energy development that requires the use of a large portion of the environment. Similar to wind farms, habitat destruction and loss is a big problem in hydroelectric energy. There are high mortality rates of certain fish species because of the hydropower turbines located in dams. There are ways to divert fish away from the turbines with certain water pressures as well as engineering efforts geared towards fish shoots, which help direct the fish away from potential danger. However,  oftentimes these solutions are not paid close attention to when planning out energy development. 

Although there are many challenges to be faced when dealing with energy development of any kind, it is important to remember that with strong natural resource management, a solid development plan, effective and efficient mitigation, and regulation, any negative effects can be lessened if not completely removed from the situation. A great example of a potential solution to help mitigate the mortality of birds in the case of wind farms, is to plan the development of the wind farms according to the migration patterns of the birds who are being affected at the highest rates. One mitigation effort could be to change the color, speed, height, etc. of the wind turbines to prevent death. Efforts such as these could help birds and bats to have the ability to see the turbines more clearly and give them a better chance of avoiding the machinery. 

With thoughtful planning measures put into place, energy development has the opportunity to sustainably grow and benefit the increasing human population while preventing extreme changes or harm to surrounding wildlife and their ecosystems. Specifically for wind farms, an appropriate wildlife mortality mitigation effort would be to place the infrastructure for the energy plant on already disturbed land, (land that is located around highly dense road areas and transmission lines) where there may already be less wildlife habitats. Although there are many options for the future of energy development, there will always be places for evaluation and improvement.

Sources: Ecology Letters: Characterising The Impacts of Emerging Energy Development on WIldlife, With An Eye Towards Mitigation, Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America: Chapter 3, Journal of Wildlife Management: Wind Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation: Challenges and Opportunities, PLOS ONE: Win-Win for Wind and Wildlife: A Visions to Facilitate Sustainable Development, Transactions of the American Fisheries Society: Fish Behavior in Relation to Passage through Hydropowers Turbines: A review