BirdLife’s role in BESTGRID is to advise the TSOs on how best to engage with environmental procedures and stakeholders, and how to minimise impacts on nature in the pilot projects. BirdLife will also produce a handbook on ecologically sensitive grid development, based on scientific evidence and experience in the field. This will be developed with the BESTGRID consortium’s input, and will be ‘road-tested’ and developed further in training events for nature conservation NGOs.
BirdLife International is the world’s largest coalition of wildlife conservation organisations. Partner organisations are located in every EU member state and boast over 2 million members across Europe. Ivan Scrase, Senior Climate Change Policy Officer with BirdLife Europe’s UK partner organisation, said: “People sometimes ask me what nature conservation has to do with transmission grid development. In short, there are two answers: climate change and bird collision risks.”
Climate risks to wildlife, and the need for renewables and grid development
BirdLife considers climate change to be the biggest long term threat to birds and wildlife. Scientific research suggests that for every one degree of warming, approximately 10% of all plant and animal species are effectively committed to extinction. The world is currently on course for four degrees of warming this century, which implies massive losses.
A review of studies of the impacts of climate change on biodiversity published in 2012 finds, “the majority of models indicate alarming consequences for biodiversity, with the worst-case scenarios leading to extinction rates that would qualify as the sixth mass extinction in the history of the earth”. This is not just a wildlife issue of course: human society depends on functioning ecosystems for its own survival.
Variable renewables, including wind and solar, have big contributions to make in decarbonising Europe’s energy systems. BirdLife supports a rapid and ecologically-sustainable transition to a European energy system based on clean, safe renewable energy. It supports Europe’s 2020 renewables targets, and has called for ambitious binding targets for renewables to 2030. However it also argues that all renewables must genuinely cut carbon emissions, and they must be deployed in a planned, strategic way so that harm to wildlife and protected areas is avoided. The same principles must be applied to new connectors and interconnectors: infrastructure development should have no unnecessary impacts on wildlife. As with wind power development, the main key to success is choosing the right technologies and the right locations. Another is making sure stakeholders are informed and working together, which is why BirdLife are part of BESTGRID.
But what exactly are the risks to wildlife from power lines, and how serious are they?
Power line risks to birds…
In some parts of Europe you only need to spend a day walking beneath certain power lines to see how serious the risk can be to birds like storks and vultures. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get accurate figures, as corpses are quickly scavenged by foxes and other species. Despite these limitations of accurate data collection, it is known that power lines cause a significant number of bird deaths, and it is important that grid planners do not add to biodiversity losses unnecessarily.
Electrocution on distribution (medium voltage) power lines is a significant risk to birds. Research suggests it is driving local extinctions in certain species such as eagle owls, storks and vultures. In the transmission (high voltage) network there is little risk of electrocution as the wires are too far apart from one another for a short circuit to be made. However, the risk of bird collisions is greater, as the structures are larger and power lines are often arranged vertically. The thin earth wire attached to the very top of pylons is perhaps the greatest collision risk, because sometimes birds fly up to avoid the more visible current carrying lines but fail to see the earth wire.
All flying bird species are at risk of collision, but certain species are more vulnerable. Birds with large wing spans such as flamingos and cranes are at greatest risk of collision, and also some less agile birds such as ducks and geese. Fast flying birds are also at disproportionate risk, especially in poor visibility. For example, research suggests that 15% of racing pigeon deaths is due to collisions with power lines. While not a wildlife conservation issue, this illustrates how real the risks are.
Again to illustrate that this is a significant issue, in Canada, power lines are estimated to be the second largest human cause of bird mortality after predation by cats. Between 10-41 million birds per year are killed by collisions with transmission lines; between 160,000 and 800,000 birds are electrocuted by distribution lines; and about 400,000 nests are destroyed annually due to vegetation clearing under power lines.
Clearly, power lines are a significant risk to birds, even if they are not the only or primary cause of bird mortality. It is safe to say they are currently a much bigger risk to birds than wind turbines – an issue which attracts much greater attention in the press.
… and how to avoid them
Existing collision risks can be reduced through mitigation measures, and new risks can be avoided or minimised by careful routing decisions. Often this is as simple as avoiding going through areas that are protected for species known to be vulnerable to collision. Routing decisions, use of undergrounding where appropriate, and use of bird deflectors, can radically reduce the risk of collision. Electrocution risks can also be eliminated through simple technical measures. BirdLife partners across Europe are always keen to provide their advice and expertise to help implement these solutions in the most cost effective ways.
Ivan Scrase concluded “Grid operators in most parts of Europe already take a lot of care to avoid impacts on nature where possible. However Europe’s biodiversity is in crisis, and we have to be sure that the sustainable energy transition does not add to the risks faced by our most vulnerable species. The BESTGRID project is a great opportunity for grid operators and conservationists to learn from one another, and to work together to advance best practices.”