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 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.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

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.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

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.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


Follow us


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.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

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.