Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



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

• November 07, 2013 • 9:00 PM


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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.

October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.

October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.

October 27 • 4:00 PM

School Shootings: What’s Different About Europe?

There may be a lot of issues at play, but it’s undeniable that the ease of access to guns in the United States is a major contributing factor to our ongoing school shooting crisis.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

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.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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