American Wind Wildlife Information Center: Casting a Wide Net in Search of Big Data
Since the early days of wind energy development in the U.S., there has been recognition that more and better data is needed about wind-wildlife interactions. The wind farms at Altamont Pass, California had unanticipated and unintended impacts on local wildlife that caught both environmentalists and wind energy advocates alike by surprise. This spurred a commitment among stakeholders from the wind industry, the conservation and science community, and wildlife agencies to work collaboratively to ensure that wind farms are as safe as possible for wildlife. As wind has grown to provide 6% of our nation’s electricity, so too have calls for better data on wind’s impacts to wildlife.
Sound science is the cornerstone of efforts to ensure that wind energy and wildlife can coexist and thrive, and focused questions, robust data, and analysis are the foundation of sound science. Through a commitment to understanding and reducing impacts, visionaries in the wind sector have come together to gather and analyze data. Their efforts, which are unprecedented in the energy industry, are providing new, important insights into wind-wildlife interactions. This in turn is leading to targeted solutions and better informed decisions about investment and conservation for wind energy projects.
Data is Key, So Let’s Gather the Data!
Initial efforts to improve understanding of the risks wind energy might pose to wildlife started with the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative (NWCC), formed in 1994 to facilitate research and information exchange. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wind Energy Guidelines established “…a tiered approach for the consideration and analysis of potential impacts to wildlife and habitat from onshore wind energy development.” The Guidelines, which place a heavy emphasis on data collection and analysis, seek to help wind energy developers minimize impacts to wildlife in the design, construction, and operation of projects.
“Despite a long history of collaboration and information exchange, barriers to full data transparency had limited our ability to use project-level information to examine and address broader wind-wildlife impacts,” said Katie Umekubo, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “AWWI has stepped up to tackle this problem head-on.”
“It’s about identifying, quantifying, and weighing risks,” explains Dr. Taber Allison, Director of Research at AWWI. “Wind energy can present a risk to certain species of wildlife. But not taking action to address the threat of climate change also puts wildlife in general at risk. Data are never perfect, and risk can never be completely eliminated, but decisions made based on solid science are the most likely to produce solutions that minimize risk and maximize smart investment in targeted conservation efforts.”
AWWI was founded to support achievement of wind energy’s full conservation potential through sound science and collaboration, and has helped meet the growing need for data by creating two groundbreaking information resources.
One is the AWWI Wind Wildlife Documents Library, a comprehensive, searchable database of research reports on wind-wildlife interactions across the U.S. This publicly accessible resource is helping to fill gaps in existing data, and users can query and filter the database to more easily find the specific reports they’re looking for. “The Library is tremendously valuable because it contains a significant amount of ‘grey’ literature, i.e. white papers, technical reports, and meeting proceedings – items that are typically harder to find because they are not published,” explained Ryan Butryn, who manages the Library.
The second is the American Wind Wildlife Information Center (AWWIC). The most complete source of data on wildlife mortality at wind energy facilities in the U.S., AWWIC is designed to capture key datasets in a format that can be analyzed and compared. This focus on raw data that can be used for analysis is what’s needed to increase knowledge and move research forward, and the implications of this powerful tool are far-reaching. The first report based on analysis of AWWIC data was released in July, 2018, and it is yielding new insights into which species of bats are at risk from wind energy, as well as the locations where they are at risk.
AWWIC data come from both public and private post-construction studies, and AWWI maintains strict confidentiality of data sources in AWWIC. This confidentiality encourages contributions from wind energy facilities across the U.S., thus increasing the overall amount of data available to produce more comprehensive analyses than have previously been possible.
The ability to analyze such a rich trove of information is what sets AWWIC apart. Going forward, stakeholders will have a much more detailed picture of how wildlife interacts with wind energy. This improved understanding and visibility enables companies to identify what mitigation and conservation strategies will be most effective, and to direct their resources accordingly.
“The AWWIC database includes studies from more than 200 projects (and counting), and each study costs a minimum of $100,000 – so it represents an investment of more than $20 million to protect and conserve wildlife,” observed Danna Small, Manager of Environmental & Natural Resources for Operations with Pattern Energy. “Thanks to AWWI’s herculean efforts to develop the database and produce robust analysis from the contents, wind energy developers now have a wealth of information available to help us determine where and how to best direct capital to benefit wildlife. It is my hope that we can now look beyond data collection, and shift our focus to identifying research priorities.”
AWWIC: A Unique Collaboration
AWWIC represents a collaboration that is unique in the energy sector. Wind energy companies generously contribute data and other resources to help develop and improve data coverage in AWWIC, and the result is unparalleled in the energy world.
“Leaders in the wind industry are doing great work to monitor and document wind-wildlife interactions,” said Dr. Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The quantitative dataset that’s being developed with their input will enable wind companies to make informed decisions that avoid, minimize, or compensate for wildlife impacts.”
Harnessing Data to Build a Better Future
This collaborative work is playing a pivotal role in increasing the availability and accessibility of data related to wind-wildlife interactions. The wind industry’s proactive stance on monitoring and data collection, combined with the work of AWWI’s collaborators, has yielded groundbreaking analysis.
By significantly improving and refining the collective knowledge regarding the risks for wildlife involved with wind energy development and operation, and how to reduce those risks, this work helps guide wind companies toward the best decisions regarding the design, development, and operation of wind farms.
“Going forward, AWWIC will be instrumental in fine tuning our knowledge about the collision risk wind facilities present to specific species, and the regions and timeframes in which those species are most vulnerable, so that future research and conservation efforts are focused and effective,” said AWWI’s Ryan Butryn.
The benefits of these efforts extend beyond finding effective solutions in the near term. “From my perspective, AWWIC is an important contribution to the body of human knowledge,” reflected Dr. James Walker, Senior Advisor to EDF Renewables and former CEO of its predecessor company, enXco, Inc. “Wind energy is one of a few energy generation technologies that will save our planet. The wind industry is going to continue to grow and expand, and we have a responsibility to future generations to record and preserve as much data as we can about wind-wildlife interactions, so that we can continue to learn and improve.”