Many politicians and conservationists have high hopes of replacing fossil fuels with clean energy, but from a bird’s eye view, wind turbine blades are deadly. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that wind turbines kill almost 328,000 birds each year.
Earlier this year, one of the largest renewable energy companies in the country was fined $8 million for unintentionally killing 150 bald and golden eagles at wind farms in eight states over recent years. But, if the company had held a permit from the service, it would not have been penalized. A smarter, market-based permitting approach could motivate wind developers to conserve eagles even as the sector expands.
Eagles are protected by federal law, but wind developers can apply for permits that allow them to kill up to a certain number of the birds “incidentally” in the course of generating wind power. (Any deaths of golden eagles, which number far fewer than bald eagles, require permittees to take actions to help boost their population.)
The problem with the current permitting system, however, is that it does too little to encourage conservation. As long as wind companies stay under their individual caps, a project that kills five eagles a year might be treated the same as one that kills 50.
Instead of a blunt, one-size-fits-all framework, making permits tradeable would encourage wind generators to conserve eagles regardless of their current impacts. Harnessing markets would motivate wind companies—and perhaps other industries—to avoid killing eagles while still allowing for the growth of the sector, an aim for the Biden administration and power companies alike.