Canadian Consulting Engineer

Where birds and wind turbines meet

March 1, 2006
By Bronwen Parsons

The first day our company moved into our new suburban office building, I walked out of the front door only to see a large bird lying freshly crushed and mangled on the ground. We're so shielded from d...

The first day our company moved into our new suburban office building, I walked out of the front door only to see a large bird lying freshly crushed and mangled on the ground. We’re so shielded from death and dying that when we encounter it taking place, whether human or animal, it gives us a jolt. The bird had flown into the reflective wall of glass, mistaking it for clear air. Over the summer, birds seemed to be smashing into the glass every day, only to be quickly whisked out of site by the maintenance staff. The building is owned by one of Canada’s largest property companies, who have evidently even established a protocol for dealing with this recurrent tragedy.

FLAP, the unique Toronto organization dedicated to the cause of reducing bird-building impacts, reports that between 100 million to one billion birds die each year in North America by hitting man-made structures, primarily by colliding with walls and windows. Flap offers solutions at Turning off the lights in office towers helps at night. For daytime remedies, it seems to me the most plausible are either to mount special film or install sunshade louvers on the outside surface of the glass. Neither of these solutions is ideal. Now there’s an opportunity for an inventive engineer!

It happens that measures for reducing bird mortality rates also tend to reduce energy consumption in buildings, so there are environmental benefits all round. Which brings me to wind energy. On page 16 is a feature by Hatch Acres on this free and renewable energy source, which at last seems to be taking off as an option for electricity generation on this continent.

Curiously, a few years ago there seemed to be as many opponents of wind power as supporters. Detractors scratched around for objections to throw at wind’s sails. Among their shots was the claim that wind turbines killed birds. One got the impression that feathers were flying at every turn of the blade.

Well, not according to the statistics. Rick Donnelly of Hatch Acres forwarded me a graph based on U.S. data comparing the causes of bird deaths. Of eight different man-made causes, wind turbines were off the graph — causing fewer than 1 per 10,000 deaths. Meanwhile buildings cause 5,500 per 10,000 deaths. High-tension lines, communications towers and vehicles all cause hundreds of deaths per 10,000.

Another specious argument I’ve heard raised against wind turbines is on the grounds of aesthetics. They’re a visual obstruction, people say. They don’t fit in with the natural landscape. Well, Hello-o-o! When was the last time you took a scenic photograph of your nearest local oil refinery or nuclear power plant?

Why is it that certain people have been so resistant to wind power or any of the other renewable energy sources? Yes, renewables each have their downside, and yes they won’t be able to carry the whole load. But we’re not going to find one easy alternative to depleting carbon based energy resources. We need a patchwork of many different supplies. Developing renewable energy is like designing building cladding systems to save birds. It’s complicated, tinkering and not the big engineering fix. It costs extra. But for the good of the planet, and for the good of our hearts, let’s Just Do It!


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