Advances in understanding how birds and bats interact with wind turbines, and emerging solutions to avoid and minimize collisions, were detailed at the 12th NWCC Wind Wildlife Research Meeting in St. Paul, MN.

The event, organized by the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI), was held Nov. 27-30, 2018 and drew more than 400 attendees. Academics, researchers, conservationists, consultants, federal and state agency staff, and wind industry professionals came together to synthesize, share, and learn about recent scientific research and progress on solutions that balance wind energy development and wildlife conservation.

Presentations focused on improved methods for assessing risk for key species, advances in research and technologies for minimizing risk, and other recent research findings providing advances in understanding of wind-wildlife interactions and solutions.

“This year’s meeting presented a very high caliber of science, and showcased the many advancements that have been made in assessing risk and creating and evaluating solutions,” said Dr. Taber Allison, AWWI Director of Research. “This forum allows experts to share the ‘state of the science,’ and allows us to improve practices, and better understand what questions remain that guide our priorities.”

Keynote speaker Dr. John Yarbrough of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) discussed how computer vision, cheap data storage, and “the explosion in the development and implementation of artificial intelligence” can “revolutionize the use of these libraries of data we’ve been collecting.” He discussed the future of data processing where it is possible to collect and use data in new and creative ways. Giving an example of collecting seismological data to detect when a carcass hits the ground, he explained that AI gives us the capacity to look at a much larger number of variables – and to think outside the box.

While acknowledging that “the inner workings of wildlife interaction in and around wind farms is complex and data-intensive,” and that there are no easy answers, Dr. Yarbrough said that AI has the potential to help us better conserve species through smarter curtailment strategies based on data-driven knowledge of activity patterns, predictive models, and real-time monitoring. “We can reduce wind turbine downtime and decrease wildlife fatalities,” he said, “why aren’t we?”

Ryan Butryn, manager of the American Wind Wildlife Information Center (AWWIC) database, presented on using the database to gain insights into variability in collision risk; regional variation in impacts to species; and how wildlife risk at wind energy facilities can be better predicted to guide conservation efforts.

Jenny McIvor, Chair of the AWWI Board, and collaborators presented on MidAmerican Energy’s proposed “Multi-Project, Multi-Species Wind Habitat Conservation Plan,” a collaborative, data-driven approach to complying with the Endangered Species Act by evaluating and mitigating risks to wildlife including bald eagles and bats.

Mitigation for migratory tree bats in particular got attention from panels on the science of improving bat impact assessment, predicting risk, and developing technologies to reduce those impacts.

Advances in quantitative assessment were featured at a half-day, hands-on training on a new software package, GenEst (short for “generalized estimator”), a new generalized fatality estimator for wildlife at renewable energy facilities. The developers acknowledged it can be surprisingly difficult to obtain accurate estimates of wildlife collisions with wind turbines. They described new statistical models that address uncertainty in carcass counting by correcting for the percentage of area searched and the difficulty of searching specific areas around the turbines, and guided attendees in using the software on existing datasets.

Another pre-conference workshop addressed offshore wind energy and the species that may be at risk, from seabirds to whales, and strategies for environmental assessment and reducing risk in Europe and for projected projects off U.S. coastlines. European colleagues described their experiences and lessons learned since offshore turbines’ early adoption and rapid growth to 169 GW of capacity in Europe in 2017 (versus the 30 MW from five turbines so far in the U.S.). Key insights and lessons learned that could be applied during development in the U.S. were emphasized, such as the importance of understanding habitat connectivity and movements of species and the importance of transparency and dialogue throughout the development process.

The meeting’s opening and closing panels provided context for the talks.

In the opening panel, a cross-sector discussion looked at the relationship between wind-wildlife science and policy. Garry George, Renewable Energy Director for the National Audubon Society and Vice Chair of AWWI’s Board, noted that over 300 species of North American birds are threatened by range restrictions from climate change. He said Audubon’s number one conservation outcome is now emissions reduction.

Wind power is expected to generate 10% of American electricity by 2020, said Tom Vinson, Vice President, Policy and Regulatory Affairs, American Wind Energy Association, but is not yet on track to reach 20% by 2030 as projected by DOE in its 2015 Wind Vision report. Vinson said acceptance of new technologies to minimize collision fatalities will be important to wind’s continued adoption.

The closing panel kicked off a conversation first introduced at the 2012 Wind Wildlife Research Meeting on risks to species from a changing climate and relative risks to wildlife from wind energy, as well as implications for how to expand wind power and managing the risks while uncertainty remains. Doug Johnson of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology summarized the overarching question: “We’ve been considering the effects of developing wind energy. Now we need to consider the effects of not developing wind energy.”

At a celebratory dinner during the meeting for AWWI’s 10th anniversary where AWWI premiered a documentary short video, Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, praised the “interdependence between wind energy and wildlife conservation.”

“Building on this foundation, there is an increased sense urgency, to address declining species, as a result of our carbon footprint, we need to make even more rapid progress to develop and deploy conservation strategies,” said AWWI Executive Director Abby Arnold. “That strategy includes development of wind and other technologies to meet demand; we are working to ensure that wind energy meets its full potential in the U.S. and worldwide while conserving species and their habitats.”