A new paper, led by Jethro Gauld from the University of East Anglia and colleagues from across Europe, demonstrates how GPS tracking data can be a powerful tool for identifying areas where birds are most sensitive to new renewable energy development due to collision risks.
The transition to zero carbon energy is essential to avoid runaway climate change. As nations strive to achieve their Net Zero targets, investment in renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and the power lines infrastructure associated with them will increase massively. European onshore wind energy capacity is projected to grow nearly fourfold by 2050, and countries in the Middle East and North Africa, such as Morocco and Tunisia, also have targets to increase the share of electricity supply from onshore wind. Alongside this there will be a huge investment in new high voltage power lines, with an estimated fivefold increase in transmission capacity required between 2010 and 2050.
However wind farms and power lines can cause significant impact on birds, one such impact is the collision risks associated with these infrastructures(see here and here). This poses a challenge to wildlife conservation and how we manage our landscape to deliver on both climate and biodiversity goals. As such it is important to develop tools which enable these risks to be more easily integrated into decisions about where new wind farms and transmission power lines are constructed.
Our study used GPS location data from 65 bird tracking studies shared on Movebank and UVA-BiTs, to understand where birds fly more frequently at danger heights for wind turbines and power lines. The GPS data collected related to 1,454 birds from 27 species. The study involved an international team of 51 researchers from 15 different countries.
This allowed us to identify the areas where the tagged birds would be more sensitive to wind turbine or power line development. Our sensitivity maps reveal that the hotspots where the tracked birds would be most impacted by collision risks from new energy infrastructure are particularly concentrated within important migration routes, such as the coastline either side of the Strait of Gibraltar, along coastlines and near breeding locations.
Overlaying the sensitivity map onto the density of wind turbines and power lines allowed us to map where the tagged birds are vulnerable to collision risks arising from existing infrastructure. Exposure to risk varied across the species, with the Eurasian spoonbill, European eagle owl, whooper swan, Iberian imperial eagle, and white stork among those flying consistently at heights where they risk collision.
Our results help highlight where development of new wind turbines and transmission power lines should be minimised to avoid the highest sensitivity areas, and any developments which do occur will likely need to be accompanied by measures to reduce the risk to birds. This should be possible because a 2019 study highlighted that there are many more suitable locations to build wind turbines than we need in order to meet our clean energy targets up to 2050.
The vulnerability maps highlight where measures to reduce the risk from existing infrastructure should be implemented. Such measures can include marking power lines to make them more visible and implementing systems to allow shutdown of wind turbines during periods of high bird traffic. We also hope our study provides a method which other researchers and practitioners can use as more data from tracking studies for other species and other areas becomes available.
Read the full paper Hotspots in the grid: Avian sensitivity and vulnerability to collision risk from energy infrastructure interactions in Europe and North Africa in Journal of Applied Ecology