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RSPB: UK can have both wind power and wildlife

Could the UK greatly increase the number of its onshore windfarms without destroying wildlife? According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the answer is yes.

The report, commissioned by the RSPB from the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP), Positive Planning for Onshore Wind: Expanding Onshore Wind Energy Capacity while Conserving Nature, finds that the UK lags far behind in the drive for wind power and calls for balance: the UK Government should step in to ensure better and quicker decisions on windfarms, while protecting wildlife and winning the backing of local communities.

Noting that the killing of birds by wind turbines is probably the most high profile concern associated with windfarms, the report cites various studies and says that high collision rates of vulnerable species are unusual and the rates per wind turbine relatively low when wind turbines are appropriately sited – especially compared to the danger of overhead power lines.

Warning that collision rates should be considered with caution – as they vary according the location of the wind turbine, the species that may come across it, and their numbers and behaviour – the report says that the greatest losses have been seen at windfarms situated on narrow migration routes or near wetlands, which attract large numbers of gulls and other large birds. Upland and ‘blanket bog areas’ are also noted as often hosting vulnerable species, as well as coastal sites.

‘Disturbance displacement,’ such as loss of roosts or other shelter is another concern but again the report says that sensitivity to the environment and to particular species can mitigate the effect.

Common sense solutions to windfarm siting

Ruth Davis, head of Climate Change Policy at the RSPB, says: “The need for renewable energy could not be more urgent. Left unchecked, climate change threatens many species with extinction. Yet, that sense of urgency is not translating into action on the ground to harness the abundant wind energy around us.”

She urges common sense solutions: “We need a clear lead from Government on where windfarms should be built and clear guidance for local councils on how to deal with applications. We must reduce the many needless delays that beset windfarm developments.”

David Baldock, director of the IEEP, says: “The development of renewable energy in Britain has to accelerate greatly if new binding targets are to be met. This means that the UK’s planning systems must facilitate a step change in the construction of wind power. The best experience elsewhere shows that this is possible. Damage to birds and other wildlife can be minimised by a strong or proactive approach – guiding turbines to the right sites. Good planning can facilitate development appropriate for the long term.”

The report notes that wind turbines met just under 2% of the UK’s electricity demands in 2007 – though deployment levels varied – with Scotland significantly out-performing other parts of the UK.

After looking at the ways in which Denmark, Germany and Spain facilitated onshore wind through their planning systems, and drawing on good practice from the countries of the UK, the report drew up conclusions on how to protect wildlife and deliver wind power on a large scale.

The report recommends:

  • A strategic approach to planning, identifying both those areas where new wind turbines are given priority, and those where they are most likely to conflict with wildlife;
  • Clear and detailed information about areas of most concern to conservationists and reference to bird sensitivity maps;
  • Strong Government leadership to tackle the lack of specialist know-how in local authorities, set local targets for wind turbines and ensure that planning decisions take account of wind power as a national priority;
  • Reduction of conflict via discussions between developers and other interested parties before planning applications are submitted to reduce conflict;
  • Promotion of more ways for communities to benefit from the windfarms on their doorstep in order to win public support, e.g. through direct ownership of wind turbines, reduced bills, and improvements to the local environment or money for local facilities.

Ruth Davis of the RSPB concludes: “This report shows that if we get it right, the UK can produce huge amounts of clean energy without time-consuming conflicts and harm to our wildlife. Get it wrong and people may reject wind power. That would be disastrous.”

See 'Related Links' for access to the full IEEP report.

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