On May 11, 2021, the Vineyard Wind 1 project was approved by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to become the country's first large-scale offshore wind energy facility. This project will consist of up to eighty-four 800-foot-tall turbines, located off the coast of Massachusetts. It is expected to set off a wave of similar developments. Some voluntary measures have been taken to minimize impacts to birds as part of the overarching planning process, and some actions will be taken to monitor impacts following construction. But more broadly, much remains to be done to measure and offset the impacts of this new industry.
“This is a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change, and one that brings a lot of uncertainty for bird populations,” says Joel Merriman, American Bird Conservancy's Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign Director. “The stakes are high — the space off the Atlantic Coast is used by hundreds of millions of birds each year, and we know from studies in Europe that offshore wind turbines can have substantial impacts on birds. The precedent-setting nature of this project means it's critical that appropriate measures be taken to minimize and monitor impacts to birds and other marine wildlife.”
Vast numbers of sea ducks, loons, and other waterbirds migrate and winter along the Atlantic Coast, including in offshore-wind planning areas. Hundreds of millions of landbirds, including rare species like the Bicknell's Thrush, make spectacular nocturnal migratory flights across the ocean to wintering grounds in Latin America, and thus will potentially run into a gantlet of offshore turbine arrays. And species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including the Roseate Tern, Atlantic population of the Red Knot, and Piping Plover, traverse areas where offshore wind energy facilities are being planned, including Vineyard Wind 1.
“We know that some species are vulnerable to collisions with turbines in the offshore environment,” says Merriman. “Others are displaced by facilities, so areas that they may have used become unsuitable. This is having substantial negative effects on species like the Red-throated Loon in some places in Europe. It's critical that we get this right.”
To date, only a small, five-turbine offshore wind facility has been built off the coast of Rhode Island, and a two-turbine research facility sits off the Virginia coast. The capacity of Vineyard Wind 1 is almost 20 times greater than these two facilities combined. This project is just the first in a massive pipeline of projects being considered, and the Biden Administration's new targets for offshore wind energy set the stage for a rapid buildout.
One vitally important underpinning to minimizing impacts of wind energy is to site wind turbines in low-risk areas for wildlife. To this end, state and federal agencies conducted studies to find the least-conflict areas for Vineyard Wind 1 and other facilities.
“This is great and it makes a big difference,” says Merriman, “but much remains to be done in the broader discussion for this new industry. We need robust monitoring data to get a handle on the actual impacts and conservation actions to offset these losses. Offshore wind energy can make a big difference in the fight against climate change. ABC will be there to ensure that birds are considered every step of the way.”
ABC thanks the Leon Levy Foundation for its support of ABC's Bird-Smart Wind Energy Program.
American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).
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