Flying Safe: Using Technology to Protect Wildlife
New and exciting technology is everywhere these days – machine learning and artificial intelligence are becoming a part of our daily lives. So it should come as no surprise that they’re being used to make wind energy safer for birds and bats.
Innovators have come together at the intersection of engineering and biology to develop technological solutions that make wind energy production safer for wildlife. Strategies based on adapting existing technologies or creating new technologies include using light, sound, or other methods to deter wildlife; using machine learning to evaluate wildlife data; and automating “smart” curtailment to stop turbines only when a species of concern is present to minimize risk to wildlife, while also minimizing losses in energy production resulting from stopped turbines.
Creating and integrating these solutions into new or operating turbines involves cross-sector collaboration and overcoming practical obstacles. But turbine manufacturers and independent technology developers are increasingly working with wind farm operators and researchers to create a variety of innovative, usable options.
Eyes on the Sky: Using Technology to Detect and Deter Wildlife
Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy is an example of a turbine manufacturer that has incorporated technology into its turbines that can automatically stop turbines based on certain variables, such as windspeed, that can indicate a higher risk of impact for some species of wildlife. “Turbines are designed with controls that allow them to be stopped under a variety of circumstances, including if there’s potential risk to wildlife,” explained Bill Clark, Mechanical Engineer at Siemens Gamesa. “Of course, stopping a turbine isn’t a neutral decision, because it means a loss of clean energy production. The ‘wildlife stop’ software package we’ve developed is designed to optimize wind farm performance while also maximizing safety for birds and bats.”
IdentiFlight is an example of a technology that can be installed as an after-market modification to a wind farm. Research suggests that more than 99% of eagles in the vicinity of wind farms give turbines a wide berth, but for the few that fly closer to the turbines, this camera-based, machine-learning technology is designed to detect and track eagles and send a signal to temporarily pause turbine rotor blades in the eagle’s path.
Research into deterrence technologies is ongoing as well. AWWI’s Technology Innovation program conducted an independent evaluation of the DTBird detection/deterrence system, and NRG Systems recently released a Bat Deterrent System that has undergone separate evaluations by Bat Conservation International and AWWI’s Technology Innovation Program.
Facilitating Innovation and Independent Evaluation
But with all of these new options becoming available, how do wind farm operators and regulators know if a technology works?
That’s where AWWI comes in. AWWI’s Technology Innovation program is an expert forum for the development and testing of these types of technological solutions. By bringing a wide range of stakeholders together and creating an environment that sparks collaboration and discussion, AWWI helps encourage progress and facilitate implementation, and vitally, independently evaluates technologies’ effectiveness so that operators can make informed decisions about what options to invest in.
“In my view, AWWI’s Technology Innovation Program is one of its greatest assets,” remarked Tim Hayes, Environmental Director for Duke Energy Renewables. “Their unwavering commitment to working with a cross-section of stakeholders to produce independent, peer-reviewed science means they have credibility with everyone, from investors to government agencies to the public.”
“When I first became involved with IdentiFlight, it was clear that its commercial future depended in part on having it evaluated by an independent third party,” explained Tom Hiester, President of IdentiFlight. “AWWI’s Technology Innovation program was key to establishing our credibility, and it led to a peer-reviewed scientific study that has helped demonstrate the viability of our product.”
The Challenges of Testing
The Technology Innovation program meets a critical need by bridging the gap between technology providers who have potential solutions but need funding to test them, and wind farm operators who want solutions but need evidence that the technology will deliver results. The funding gap between “concept” and “commercial product” is a common challenge across industries, and in other sectors it might be filled by venture capitalists or angel investors. In the case of wind-wildlife technology, funding to test and evaluate solutions is often sourced from private donations, wind companies, and government grants, with AWWI playing a leading role in bringing parties together.
Testing technological solutions to wind-wildlife issues requires patience and time because the tests are done in real-world situations. “You are beholden to natural cycles and the behavior of wildlife, neither of which are things you can control,” explained Brogan Morton, Senior Product Manager at NRG Systems. “And once a scientific study is underway, you can’t change anything until the study has run its course, because that would invalidate the results.”
Further complicating matters is the seasonality of testing – in the case of bats, technology tests are run during the fall migration period from July 15 – October 15. “This means that once a season is complete, you have to wait another year before you can test again,” continued Morton. “All of this adds up to a very long product verification and validation cycle, and a very expensive process. It’s an anomaly in the tech world, where ordinarily speed is of the essence and you want to introduce improvements and successive iterations as quickly as possible.”
But developing technological solutions to wind-wildlife issues requires overcoming more than just biological challenges. Testing and installing equipment on turbines and integrating the equipment into the wind farm can affect operations, maintenance, and warranties, so it can require the involvement and approval of multiple departments within the company operating the wind farm, as well as the turbine manufacturer.
“From a cost-benefit standpoint, it makes sense to invest in the development of technology that may reduce risk,” explained Duke Energy Renewable’s Tim Hayes. “Some of our nation’s best wind resources are located in areas that have a lot of eagle activity. By making it safer to develop these windy sites, technologies that can greatly reduce eagle collisions can more than pay for themselves.”
Better Data Leads to Better Decisions
Technology also plays a vital role in tracking wildlife to help scientists understand wildlife movements and behavior. “Technology is playing an increasingly important role in ornithology,” remarked Dr. Chris McClure, Director of Global Conservation Science with The Peregrine Fund. “By enabling us to look at a much larger and more complete data set, the use of technology is leading to new discoveries, and it’s also significantly increasing our confidence in our findings.”
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) uses technology to monitor the activity of endangered and threatened birds, and provides data to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use in meta-analyses conducted to inform the Service’s decision-making process. USGS is currently monitoring approximately 100 golden and bald eagles using satellite transmitters, and over the past 12 years a total of 400-500 eagles have been tracked, contributing to meta-analyses conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on movements and mortality rates of bald and golden eagles. In addition, the USGS monitors California condors to support conservation efforts focused on reintroducing these birds to their former habitat in the mountains of California and Mexico.
Understanding wildlife behavior is important because as populations of protected species in the vicinity of a wind farm increase or change their activity patterns over time, it can present a challenge for a company operating a wind farm that will last 30 or more years. “We are interested in technologies that can offer solutions, because we anticipate needing a variety of options over the operational life of a project,” explained Jenny McIvor, Vice President, Environmental Policy and Chief Environmental Counsel for Berkshire Hathaway Energy. “Technologies that can augment or enhance our risk minimization strategies will definitely be of interest.”
“We begin by avoiding risks, and then look at minimizing those risks we cannot avoid,” continued McIvor. “Overall, I think the techniques and methods developed by wind-wildlife stakeholders have been very effective at minimizing risks. Now the challenge is to see what kinds of solutions can be developed to reduce the risks that remain. I’m very excited about the prospects.”
Toward a Future of Flying Safe
Stakeholders committed to protecting wildlife agree that one of the greatest risks facing birds and bats is climate change, and many see wind energy as part of the solution – as long as the risk to wildlife can be minimized. “Wildlife populations face numerous anthropogenic threats, but chief among them are those posed by global warming,” remarked Garry George, Renewable Energy Director for National Audubon Society, which supports expediting the development of properly sited renewable energy and has set a goal of ensuring that 50 percent of America’s energy comes from renewable sources by 2030.
“Our models predict that climate change will have significant impacts on the habitat and migration patterns of several sensitive species,” George continued. “Increased deployment of renewable energy is an important strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s essential that wind farms utilize every means possible to minimize impacts to wildlife, including technological solutions.”
Through the Technology Innovation program, which draws on the collective resources and expertise of the wind industry, AWWI is working with leaders and innovators toward more rapid and widespread deployment of technologies that will protect wildlife. For example, AWWI is collaborating with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Technology Development and Innovation program, which supports early-stage technologies and research. While further work on detection and deterrence technologies is still needed, significant progress has been made on refining what these technologies can accomplish, thanks to the dedicated efforts of all involved.
“All forms of energy production have challenges,” said Duke’s Energy Renewable’s Tim Hayes. “The wind-wildlife community is still learning how to make wind energy safer for wildlife. Having seen the technical solutions that are being developed, I am very confident we will succeed.”