Helping birds and bats share the sky with wind farms


NAU Birdman
William Auberle
William Auberle

William Auberle’s love for nature goes beyond the posters of birds decorating his office. His most recent election as a board member of Arizona Audubon might be the most fun for him, but making a difference to the environment is part of his everyday work. His research interests focus on environmental policy, sustainable development, air quality management and environmental protection on tribal lands.

Known as NAU’s resident expert on air pollution, the Air and Waste Management Association recently awarded Auberle its 2009 Lyman A. Ripperton Award in environmental education for working toward a less polluting coal and for his involvement in creating the development of wind farms while protecting birds and bats.

To protect the birds and bats living on the Colorado Plateau from the rapidly growing wind energy industry, researchers at Northern Arizona University have developed guidelines that mitigate the effects of wind energy on avian populations.

“If people are thinking about building a wind farm, they should be asking about the potential biological impacts associated with that development,” said William Auberle, a professor in the university’s Civil and Environmental Engineering and Environmental Sciences and Studies program.

Auberle and his research team recently released Guidelines for Assessing the Potential Impacts to Birds and Bats from Wind Energy Development in Northern Arizona and the Southern Colorado Plateau, a document for anyone in the region who is considering tapping into wind energy.

Auberle, a self-proclaimed orniphile, set out to create broadly accepted guidelines, adaptable to locations throughout the Four Corners region, that encourage wind energy resource assessment and development that protect birds and bats from flying into wind turbines.

“When some of the first wind farms were built in California, it was devastating to golden eagles and red tail hawks,” Auberle said. “As a result of lawsuits regarding this, many of those turbines need to be shut down during migration season. Wouldn’t that have been nice to know?”

The report cites and sums up laws that already exist to protect the Colorado Plateau’s avian population. More important, it includes results from preliminary site evaluations for a number of areas surveyed by students and researchers from NAU’s Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Program and Foundation, which Auberle coordinates.

“We provide information about both birds and bat populations,” he explained. “For birds you must consider whether they are nesting or migrating through an area. The same is true for bats; except most bats are residents, and few of them migrate.”

The researchers used previously existing data and spent several years surveying the region, focusing on sites at Gray Mountain, Seligman and near Meteor Crater. They counted live avian populations as well as carcasses. Using tracking methods, such as the acoustic monitoring of bird songs and sonic recordings of bats in action at night, the researchers have accounted for about 30 nesting and 50 migrating species of birds and about 15 species of bats.

Bringing wind farm costs down to earth
Karin Wadsack, a graduate student in NAU’s College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences, who helped research the avian guidelines, now is working on a report funded by the U.S. Department of Energy grant to determine the economic impact of wind energy on the region.

Karin Wadsack
Karin Wadsack

“I am establishing whether it is worth investing in wind power development in Arizona, or whether it makes more sense for Arizona utilities to support the construction of new transmission to import renewable electricity such as wind power from states with better wind resource,” Wadsack said.

Wadsack predicts wind power development in Arizona will return 40 percent of the initial construction costs back to local communities. She said the amount of money returned to communities will total nearly 67 percent of the total investment.

“By understanding what species share the environment and where, wind developers can adapt the turbines while keeping them cost effective and efficient,” Auberle noted.

For example, to protect raptors and eagles from flying into wind turbines, researchers documented their nesting sites, breeding habits, flying patterns and areas where they feed on small animals.

Surveying the species helps pinpoint endangered populations and determines which species of birds migrate at a very high altitude and are of little concern.

Auberle says many wind-energy techniques exist to minimize habitat disturbance such as building the turbines away from areas highly populated with avian species, creating “buffer zones” for development away from roosting or migration sites, lighting the towers, equipping the turbines with visual attributes, audio sensors and burying power lines sometimes associated with wind farms.

A $225,000, three-year grant from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy provided funding for guidelines, which are now landing in the hands of hundreds of wind-energy decision makers, including developers, land managers, environmental groups, and wildlife and government agency managers throughout the Southwest.

The funding also is going toward NAU’s management of the Arizona Wind Working Group, which works to provide educational outreach about regional wind farm development. Research from the group will be presented at the upcoming NAU-hosted 2009 Southwest Renewable Energy Conference to be held at the High Country Conference Center Sept. 10 and 11.