Menus Subscribe Search
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

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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