Using Big Data to Assess Risk with AWWIC Manager Ryan Butryn

In this feature, AWWI program leaders give a behind-the-scenes look at their work.

This month, Outreach Manager Paige Johnson chats with American Wind Wildlife Information Center (AWWIC) Manager Ryan Butryn.

Paige: How was AWWIC developed, and what makes it unique?

Ryan: Many wind companies have years of data from post-construction monitoring (PCM) for bird and bat fatalities, but before AWWIC, there was limited access to confidential data from different wind companies, and so ability to run robust analyses – and our understanding of risk – was limited. Soon after AWWI was formed in 2008, industry partners identified a unique opportunity for pooling post-construction fatality data to learn more about collision risk to wildlife.

AWWI offered this opportunity because of our collaborative relationship with wind industry partners and the ability to keep confidential data completely anonymous. Companies are voluntarily contributing otherwise private data to benefit research – this is a bold endeavor, and it means AWWIC is able to represent more of the wind energy fleet than any other database.

Paige: When you conducted the first analyses of bird and bat fatality data in AWWIC, were you surprised by any of the results?

Ryan: I was surprised that for both bats and birds, collision fatalities for the majority of species were found very rarely. Just a few species were discovered on a more regular basis. The data showed us that the risk is skewed – it’s not a mostly-bat issue or a mostly-bird issue; there are species-specific differences that lead to the pattern of fatalities that we observed.

Another interesting finding was the variability in fatality estimates by geographic location. Most sites are reporting relatively low numbers of fatalities; however, some sites reported many times higher fatalities. This is intriguing because it means there could be something going on at those particular sites that could be potentially avoided. It opens up questions about how we could mitigate collisions. If there were consistent fatality rates across the board, there wouldn’t be much science left to do. The finding of variability means there is more to discover that can help reduce collision risk.

Paige: You are in the process of developing updated analyses for birds and bats based on new data in AWWIC. How much more data do we have now, and how does that affect the analyses?

Ryan: AWWIC, which now represents 31% of operating wind energy in the U.S., has added 100 additional studies, mostly from the Midwest, Mountain Prairie, and Southwest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regions. Those Regions had the lowest representation in previous analyses. With more data, we have greater confidence that data we’re receiving is representing the entire wind energy fleet from those Regions. The updated analyses are under review now and will be available later this summer.

Paige: How much data do we need?

Ryan: The point where we have enough data is when we add additional studies and we’re not learning anything new about the pattern of collision risk – the species impacted or magnitude of fatalities. When it comes to an overall fatality rate, it varies by region on how representative the data are of the installed wind capacity. For example, with very consistent study results, you need less data to describe a pattern, whereas regions with high variability require many more studies to have confidence in the magnitude of fatalities.

Paige: How is AWWIC helping wind companies, the conservation community, and regulators expand responsibly sited and operated wind energy?

Ryan: AWWIC helps inform collaboration between wind energy developers and regulators by providing concrete data to inform decision making. AWWIC is helping to make PCM studies more efficient and targeted, reducing cost to wind companies and expanding understanding of risk so that resources can be targeted toward effective conservation and mitigation. Further, AWWIC data is informing avoidance strategies. It is being used to developed smart curtailment algorithms for eagles, and compare curtailment regimes, compare fatality rates from different turbine sizes, and determine landscape characteristics’ ability to predict fatality rates for bats.

Paige: What do you see as the next steps, and for the future of AWWIC?

Ryan: AWWIC will continue to be the backbone of AWWI and Wind Wildlife Research Fund studies that are providing new findings about risk and targeted solutions. We will maintain regularly updated technical reports so that the wind-wildlife community always has access to the most up-to-date information.

We also encourage companies to participate in AWWIC and provide data, creating opportunities to learn more about direct impacts from wind energy and narrow our research focus on species and locations that have the greatest risk so we can best target conservation efforts.

Learn more about AWWIC: Contact Ryan Butryn at