Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


windmill-bats

(PHOTO: DOMINIK HLADIK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Windmills: 600,000, Bats: 0. Time for a New Game?

• November 07, 2013 • 9:00 PM

(PHOTO: DOMINIK HLADIK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

A new study estimates that at least 600,000 bats died last year in the Lower 48 from wind turbines.

A lot of bats are exploding in the United States, and it’s because of renewable energy.

A new study published in the journal BioScience estimates that more than 600,000 bats died from interactions with wind turbines in the continental United States last year alone. Given the various issues bats have had with deadly white-nose syndrome, climate change, and that they generally only give birth to a single bat pup a year, this is a worry. How much of a worry is unknown, writes author Mark A. Hayes, a bat biologist at the University of Colorado-Denver: Since their subjects are small and nocturnal, researchers don’t have a good handle on how many bats are in the U.S.

Even if the population was known definitely, Hayes says his estimate of deaths—based on fairly elaborate “distribution-fitting analysis”—is almost surely on the low side, perhaps only two-thirds the real figure. (His figures are in the ballpark with earlier wind vs. bat studies using other forms of estimation.) Hayes used the lowest numbers whenever a range of deaths was presented from the 21 locations across the nation he studied. Most of the other work he drew those numbers from only looked at bat fatalities during peak migration times, when figures were likely to be at the highest but which also misses the drumbeat of bat deaths from the rest of the year. Some of the areas with the largest known populations of bats, like the Southwest, didn’t have study sites.

Besides the core idea that it’s a bad idea to remove any species from the linked chain of life, bats in particular eat a lot of bugs, including mosquitoes, that cause problems for farmers and suburbanites.

Meanwhile, expect a lot more windmills. Wind energy is an increasingly popular power source in the United States, with 2012 the best year on record for installed capacity and the largest source of new electricity that went on line last year. America’s cumulative installed wind energy capacity is 2,200 percent since the year 2000 (from an admittedly small base) and reasonable expectationsespecially now that power from wind is relatively cheap—are that one fifth of the nation’s electricity will come from wind before 2030.

Interestingly, beyond just estimating total deaths, Hayes compared electrical generation capacity to bat mortality, although he didn’t explicitly state that the two were correlated. He also didn’t compare mortality based on turbine design—they vary widely—which seems like fertile ground for investigation. And while he didn’t generate regional estimates, Hayes shows that the greatest carnage per megawatt occurred in the Appalachians. While the bat carcasses are a fact, whether Tennessee and West Virginia wind turbines are somehow more deadly, or that their toll reflects poor data from other windy-and-batty areas, is an open question.

Given that wind turbines are basically a collection of whirring blades, you might assume that the bats found dead have been sliced and diced. You might also wonder how an animal that uses radar to find a single mosquito in the dark could fail to sense a monstrous wind turbine. The University of Calgary’s Erin Baerwald explained this to Discovery News in 2008: “When people were first starting to talk about the issue, it was ‘bats running into the turbine blades.’ We always said, ‘No, bats don’t run into things.’ Bats can detect and avoid all kinds of structures,” and are even better at detecting stuff that’s moving. No, they’re exploding. As I learned  last year, “Baerwald and her colleagues discovered that bats’ ‘large, pliable lungs’ blow up from change in air pressure created by moving blades. Up the 90 percent of the dead bats they examined showed the internal bleeding consistent with their argument. Birds, by the way, have different kinds of lungs so their deaths are from the more predictable blunt-force trauma.”

If you’re not the kind of person who isn’t automatically appalled by the destruction of small, furry creatures, why would you care about bats? Besides the core idea that it’s a bad idea to remove any species from the linked chain of life, bats in particular eat a lot of bugs, including mosquitoes, that cause problems for farmers and suburbanites. They also pollinate some plants.

Despite being a bat guy, Hayes doesn’t call for muzzling wind power. For that, leave it to the bird partisans (or are they anti-wind partisans?). Bird strikes are a concern, and while it now looks like more bats than birds are victims, the loss of highly charismatic eagles turns more heads than the loss of even lots more frankly creepy-looking bats. Nonetheless, bird protectors and wind fans in some cases have found a modus vivendi. Now it’s time for bats and their human friends to step up to the plate, with the hope we can have more whiffs and fewer strikes.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.