India soon to have guidelines to save birds from wind energy farms

  • India has a massive wind energy programme with wind farms spread across the country. But many of these wind farms disturb the habitat of local and migratory birds.
  • To mitigate and prevent such risks, a panel of forest experts of the environment ministry has suggested a series of measures like painting the vane tips of the wind turbines orange and installing bird flight diverters.
  • In addition to such preventive steps, more studies are needed to fully understand the impact of wind projects on birds.

Alarmed by the threats from wind energy farms to birds, including migratory birds and raptors, a panel of forest experts of India’s environment ministry has now suggested a series of measures to be adopted by all the wind power companies in India for ensuring the protection of birds.  

For instance, it has suggested painting the vane tips of wind turbines orange, to prevent birds from flying into the turbines.

The requirement for such measures has increased as the world is moving away from fossil fuel and towards renewable energy, mainly wind and solar power, to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“In doing so, we must avoid creating new hazards for wildlife, such as those caused by siting wind turbines in areas where they pose a collision risk to vulnerable migratory birds,” said a April 2018 report, “The state of the world’s birds” by Birdlife International.

The move is also significant in view of India’s massive clean energy programme. In 2015, the Indian government announced that it aims to achieve 175,000 megawatt (MW) of installed capacity of renewable power by 2022 and of that, 60,000 MW is planned from wind power alone.

The government has also notified the National Offshore Wind Energy Policy to use the huge wind power potential along India’s over-7,500-km coastline and install at least 5,000 MW of offshore wind energy generation capacity by 2022.

Currently, India’s total installed wind power capacity is 34,046 MW.

Wind power accounts for about 50 percent of India’s installed renewable power capacity. Photo by Shankaran Murugan/Wikimedia Commons.

“An ambitious wind energy programme causes less damage to birds than the coal plants we have now. There is a debate worldwide about wind energy projects causing a disturbance in bird movements. So, a more carefully planned site will probably be helpful for all stakeholders” said Rakesh Kamal, a consultant with The Climate Reality Project – India, an independent organisation working on climate change related issues.

What is the need for such guidelines?

The subject of issuing such guidelines was discussed in the meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on March 22, 2018.

The FAC is the expert panel that considers proposals received by the MoEFCC seeking diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes like setting up of industries, mining and dams.

In the present case, the proposal considered by FAC was for the diversion of 52.66 hectares of forest land in Kuderu and Kondapalli reserve forests of Andhra Pradesh for setting up a 46.40 MW wind power project. The total cost of the proposed project is Rs. 3.48 billion (Rs. 348 crore).  

It was pointed out during the FAC meeting that migratory and local bird casualties occur not only because of wind energy farms on forest land but also by those located elsewhere.

Few years ago, around 400 flamingos died due to electrocution by power transmission lines in Kutch, Gujarat. Photo by Samruddhishetty/Wikimedia Commons.

As per the minutes of the FAC’s meeting, a senior forest official stated that the “biggest threat comes from the high tension transmission lines with tall pylons (35 metres and above) being established by the transmission companies” and it is necessary that such companies are directed by the MoEFCC to “fix diverters on transmission cables as a standard practice to avoid the casualty of birds by collision and electrocution”.

The Committee also noted that wildlife research organisation Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has reported that power lines are one of the major causes of unnatural deaths for birds in a large part of India and though exact numbers are unknown, annually, millions of birds are killed.

Electrocution and collision are the two major impacts of power lines on birds. Electrocution most commonly occurs at medium voltage distribution lines due to the close spacing of the structures and often involves large perching bird species like storks which can easily bridge the gap between two cables.

FAC observed that electrocution mainly occurs in open habitats like deserts, plains, steppes, grasslands and wetlands as they lack natural perches or trees for nesting and roosting.

“It especially affects birds during the breeding season, when nest building, hunting and territorial behaviour put adults birds like white storks, Eurasian eagle owls and eagles at risk. In summer, post-breeding dispersal of juveniles and the start of migration also result in an increase in electrocution casualties,” FAC noted.  

“It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand you are trying to generate power which is termed as clean as it is without pollution. But no development comes without a cost. Wind turbines may also cause problems for birds. The fact that guidelines had to be formed suggests that government realises that there could be issues and has tried to solve them,” said Rahul Kaul, chief ecologist at the Wildlife Trust of India.

Mortality of birds is not the only issue as the wind energy farms could also result in behavioural changes and disturb the breeding, foraging and roosting areas of birds. It is also believed that wind energy projects make habitats unsuitable for not only birds but also for other animals.

Another report by BNHS in 2013 had held that collision of birds and bats with moving blades, towers and associated infrastructure are particularly detrimental to long-lived, slow-reproducing species like eagles and bats, loss of which is non-compensatory. It additionally said that wind turbines may also result in the disturbance and displacement of birds from the area where such turbines are installed.

What are the guidelines suggesting?

The FAC, as per the minutes of the meeting, also quoted the measures suggested by BNHS for preventing collision and said that the problem of mitigation measures for prevention of casualty to various local birds, raptors and migratory birds which follow predetermined routes and season and the preventive measures to avoid collision and electrocution should be taken not only for the wind energy projects on the forest land but also for all wind energy projects whether set up on forest or non forest land.

Thousands of birds are killed due to power lines every year in India. Photo by Bipin C.M.

The FAC considered the concerns raised and recommended that directions may be issued by the “ministry (MoEFCC) to all wind energy generation companies and transmission grid companies to follow the standard mitigation measures whether the project involves forest land or not.”

It suggested the mandatory deployment of devices (so-called bird flight diverters) at regular intervals on conductors in order to make them more visible to birds in flight.

It recommended that the “vane tips of the wind turbine shall be painted with the orange colour to avoid bird hits”.

Such suggestions have earlier too been given to companies having wind farms, but they have been rarely acted upon. However, this scenario can change and action will be required once MoEFCC issues official guidelines and directs all wind energy generation companies and transmission grid companies to follow these standard mitigation measures to protect birds.

Meeting the challenge faced by birds from wind energy projects is also a key objective of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), an environmental treaty under the UN Environment.

“At the meeting of the CMS Parties in 2014, a resolution was adopted to establish a multi-stakeholder task force on reconciling selected energy sector developments with migratory species conservation. Known simply as the Energy Task Force, it provides a platform where government ministries, conservation organisations, international financial institutions and the energy sector can collaborate to identify and implement solutions for sustainable, wildlife-friendly, renewable energy development,” states the Birdlife International report.

It remains to be seen whether bird flight diverters will be effective in saving birds. Photo by R. Jason Brunson (US Navy)/Wikimedia Commons.

Experts said that once the guidelines are issued the focus should be on their implementation.

“It is a step in the right direction. Now what remains to be seen is their implementation. We also need to see how effective they are. This is important in light of India’s huge wind energy programme. More research should be undertaken in this area to assess the impacts of such projects on birds and wildlife,” said Kaul.

“The recommendations look decent with the proposal for mitigation measures and even awareness programmes. But one thing that I felt was missing was the mention of promotion of decentralised energy or hybrid projects as a recommendation wherever possible,” Kamal emphasised.

Meanwhile, for the particular project in Andhra Pradesh, FAC stipulated several conditions. It held that the immediate surrounding area of the wind turbines should be maintained as a vegetation-free area to avoid faunal movement and wherever feasible, underground cables should be used for evacuation of power generated by wind turbines to the nearby power grid.

In 2011, around 400 flamingos were killed due to electrocution by high power transmission lines in Kutch, Gujarat. Following this, the Gujarat government took those power lines underground.

The FAC also said that fruit tree species and water bodies/pond formations should be avoided near the turbines as that may attract birds and result in their death. FAC stressed that dead animals should be removed from wind turbine sites to prevent attraction of carnivore birds/raptors.

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