The Wind Beneath Biden’s Wings: Climate Goals Need Wind Energy, Can It Fly?
Without a doubt, the US is about to see a surge in wind energy. Even the Texas panhandle is dotted with turbines. And plans for new wind farms have sped through federal and state approval processes in half a dozen coastal states with ambitious renewable energy targets to hit. But just a few years ago, even wind energy advocates could not have predicted such a boom. How did we get here, and what obstacles might wind energy face now?
Heading into the critical Glasgow climate conference (COP26), the Biden Administration flaunted every small step it made toward climate change mitigation. John Kerry returned from his world tour of climate diplomacy to proclaim that the world is “behind” on its climate commitments. But he could have stayed home and still come to that conclusion after examining the continued American reliance on fossil fuels and the ceaseless battles with congressional conservatives and fossil fuel promoters over renewable energy development. But the hope shining from out of these stormy, polluted clouds has been the possibility of vastly expanded wind energy. From coast to coast, offshore wind energy has dominated the policy and media landscapes as many Governors and the President alike have proclaimed new offshore wind energy targets to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and create renewable energy jobs. The overwhelming message from climate scientists, environmental advocates, and democratic leaders alike is that the US needs offshore wind energy and fast. So where does the U.S. stand with GHG emissions targets and offshore wind now?
President Biden has committed to US carbon neutrality by 2050,* and it is likely that this commitment will be reflected in changes to the American GHG cuts pledged in the new COP26 agreement (whether Congress ratifies these commitments will be a different story). At present, the U.S. ranks 2nd in global emissions (behind China) and each year since 2007 has consistently shown at least a 1.8 percent increase in GHG emissions. In 2019, the US emitted 6.5 gigatons of GHGs, drastically increasing from the 5.9 gigatons emitted in 2018. In comparison, Obama signed the US’s commitment under the Paris Agreement which aimed for reductions to 5.5 gigatons emitted by 2020. Clearly, the U.S. commitment in Paris to slash carbon emissions has fallen woefully behind.
Yet, when looking at offshore wind energy production, the numbers begin to look more encouraging. Currently, the U.S. has two functioning offshore wind farms–Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island and Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Project–producing around 30 MW per year, paling in comparison to Europe’s 25 GW per year from over 100 active offshore wind farms. This summer, the Biden administration announced its target of 30 GW of offshore wind energy produced annually by 2030, creating, at completion, an estimated $108 billion in revenues. Coastal states from Oregon to North Carolina have begun to vie for offshore wind renewable energy credits (ORECs) as they implement policies and approve projects for new offshore farms. If you aggregate these state commitments, they actually surpass Biden’s target of 41.5 GW produced annually by 2030. Furthermore, these policies and plans have led to an increasing number of contracts with industry producers like Ørsted and Vineyard Winds in the last few months alone.
Nevertheless, it’s not quite full steam ahead for coastal wind farms. There are obstacles ahead: a Trump-era ban on wind turbines on the southeast coasts still may go through, many coastal towns protest any change to their viewshed, and the fishing industry will not give up their waters. But the most important and most complex challenge for ramping up wind energy and meeting ambitious climate targets is the fate of marine ecosystems.
Yet when examining the reality of installing hundreds of miles of wind turbines along the coast, considerations of the effects on marine life need to be considered in development plans. Technological advances play a key role in how wind turbines interact with marine life and what threats or benefits they may present. First, the noise from installing the turbines–moving them out to sea and connecting them to the ocean floor–has the potential to damage or distress marine life in ways similar to sonar usage and fossil fuel extraction. Additionally, some environmentalists have concerns about the new mooring cables that attach floating turbines to the seafloor and how they may entangle and kill larger marine life in particular. However, surprising new colonies of blooming marine life have emerged around wind turbines, both in the Northern Sea in Europe, and even off the Virginian coast. While turbine installation causes some marine disturbances, the presence of wind turbines means that those areas are inherently protected from overfishing and bottom trawling. In the North Sea, this new protection has allowed blue mussels to congregate around turbines further away from the shore, spurring a new bloom of rich phytoplankton colonies that support diverse marine ecosystems. In the US, Virginia’s first turbines showed signs of new life in the last few months. Holes in the turbine to release pressure actually allow for marine life to flow in and out and reside inside of the turbine. Scientists have noticed that the turbines act as artificial reefs, attracting “Mussels, algae, mahi, seabass, baitfish,” and more. While the research on these new technologies’ impacts on marine life is still unfolding, environmentalists have been pleasantly surprised with these unanticipated benefits.
While looking at the relationship between marine life and wind energy, it is also important to consider how bird conservation and renewable energy placements interact. At first glance, it may seem that bird conservationists and advocates of wind energy are pitted against each other. While there are legitimate concerns about how wind energy should be handled to protect threatened birds, it would be a mistake to assume that concern for birds and the promotion of wind energy are black and white, either/or stances. So why has it seemed, in recent years, that bird conservationists and renewable energy advocates cannot be the same people? And why have a few bird groups actively opposed wind energy at every turn? The answer may lie in a couple of words — Donald Trump. In December of 2019, President Trump claimed that wind energy “kill[s] the birds.” He continued by asking, “You want to see a bird graveyard? You just go. Take a look… Go under a windmill someday. You’ll see more birds than you’ve ever seen, ever, in your life.” Nearly a year later, he was doubling down with the same argument. At a presidential debate against Joe Biden on October 23rd, 2020, President Trump stated that wind energy “kills all birds.” His persistent claim began to catch on and his supporters started to use the argument. By pitting two environmental issues against each other, President Trump was able to claim to be anti-wind because he was pro-bird. But a close look at the bird slaughter argument shows it is taken out of context, blown out of proportion, and not grounded in fact.
Throughout Trump’s presidency and campaign for re-election, countless articles were released about what truly threatens bird populations. The top cause of bird mortality are outdoor cats, killing up to 3.7 billion birds annually. Following that, birds are threatened by building and vehicle collisions at a far higher rate than wind turbine collisions. Of course, these are just the direct causes of bird death. When we factor in the long-term effects of climate change, it becomes the largest killer of all; two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction because of climate change. By pitting renewable energy and birds against each other, we hinder progress on fighting climate change which, in the end, harms birds even more.
It is true that wind turbines pose threats to birds. In fact, it is estimated that wind turbines kill up to 300 thousand birds a year. However, despite what President Trump says, this is not an argument to stop all wind energy production. Instead, bird conservation organizations and wind energy operations should work together to install safer and more intentional wind turbines; some groups have already started to take these steps. The National Audubon Society has helped to develop guidelines to ensure that wind energy poses a minimal risk to birds and other species. The American Bird Conservancy works on Bird-Smart Wind Energy projects. On top of conservation organizations, the wind energy sector is helping to reduce bird mortality itself. Research has shown that the movement towards larger wind turbines is also resulting in fewer bird deaths. Other technologies like radars and migration forecasts also allow for a safer co-existence of birds and turbines. Some case studies have even shown that the advent of technologies like smart cameras can cut bird deaths by 82%. With more research, collaboration, and intentionality, wind energy operations can reduce the already relatively low threat posed to our feathered friends. One can be pro-bird and pro-wind energy; in fact, they go hand-in-hand.
It is clear that renewable energy is needed in the United States and around the world. John Kerry explained that the world is behind on climate commitments, but, truthfully, we are behind on any climate-related innovation and policy that could help slow the world’s rising temperatures. In the coming years, we need as much strong, effective policy and technologies as possible, and offshore wind is one of these innovations. By painting wind energy as bad for conservation efforts, we stunt necessary climate policy and simplify a very complicated issue. Whether it is marine or bird conservation, there is room for collaboration between conservation groups and energy experts; in fact, it such efforts will help us most in our fight against climate change in the coming century. We have already witnessed cooperation that works and the positive side effects of wind energy on conserving wildlife. While some of these consequences were unexpected, we can definitively foresee a major one. Our movement away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy will propel us closer to a world that is more suitable and more sustainable, not just for birds and marine life, but for the human species as well
*Carbon neutrality, or net-zero emissions, does not mean no emissions. These pledges often rely on risky and unsustainable carbon offsets.
Audrey Magnuson, RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow
Audrey Magnuson co-leads RCC’s Coasts and Ocean program and works on environmental justice and policy. She is a senior at Duke University majoring in Public Policy with minors in Environmental Science and Art History. [email protected]
Isabel Wood: RCC Stanback Presidential Intern
Isabel Wood is the co-lead with Ross Feldner and Bob Musil of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program and works with Mackay Pierce on communications and social media.
She is a junior at Duke University majoring in Environmental Science and Policy with a certificate in Documentary Studies. [email protected]