Approximately 140,000 to 500,000 birds die annually from collisions with wind turbine blades in the US, according to the US Fish and Wildlife service.
Now, researchers think they may have found a way to lessen these collision deaths in the most simple way possible after a small-scale, nine-year study at the Smøla wind farm in Norway. All it takes is a touch of black paint. By painting just one blade black, the researchers report they have managed to reduce bird deaths from wind turbines by over 70 percent.
Reporting their findings in Ecology and Evolution, Roel May and colleagues suggest that a painted blade can increase the visibility of the spinning turbines and prevent birds from getting struck. The research found a significant reduction of bird carcasses below painted wind turbines when compared to numbers prior to painting and also compared to neighboring turbines that weren't painted. They found that although the control turbines saw an increase of carcasses over the years, those that were painted saw a reduction.
They found that the painted blades had the largest impact on raptor fatalities, with no white-tailed eagle carcasses found in the 3.5-year period after painting.
2019 saw a rapid increase in the production of wind turbines, with a staggering 60 GW of wind energy capacity added over the course of the year. That makes it the second-best year for wind power on record, with even more turbines likely to be added in the coming years.
However, as with many attempts at pushing renewable energy, there is pushback. Some say turbines are an eyesore to the scenery and cite the harm to birds. President Trump has even weighed in with a bizarre tirade against them, calling them “bird graveyards” and falsely claiming the noise they produce somehow “causes cancer”.
Whilst turbines are certainly not causing cancer, the spinning blades can have an impact on local avian populations (though not as much as, say, cell and radio towers, which cause around 6.8 million bird deaths each year). If a small lick of paint could help further minimize the environmental impact of wind turbines, the simple remedy is more likely to be used.
It is important to note that this study was based on just four wind turbines, so a larger scale study is needed to confirm these preliminary findings. Whilst the results showed a significant reduction in bird deaths, there were isolated cases in which the painted rotors even increased deaths, namely in the summer months. The authors are unsure why, stating that it is possible that bird populations simply varied between seasons, but believe the findings are encouraging enough to warrant further investigation
They add: "It is recommended to repeat this experiment at other sites to ensure that the outcomes are generic at various settings"