Southern Alberta Wind Farm

Unintended Consequences of
“Green” Infrastructure??

Many folks look at a field of wind turbines and see beauty, same for solar panels. They see green. I on the other hand see the potential for a limiting factor for prairie wildlife populations, particularly birds and the habitat they depend upon. The green move in the name of environmentalism is layering unintended consequences on our landscape as we know it; resulting in the loss of our precious grasslands, the rarest ecotype on the continent today.

Wind farms are being erected at a rapid rate across Alberta as incentives from governments to build green infrastructure become available. The obvious effect is that of collisions with bats and birds – wind farms are often referred to as bird or bat “blenders”. Although this is real, on many parts of the vast prairie, this is not that big of a problem, continentally.

Highlines, power poles and buildings are all guilty of the same and although the annual death rate is in the millions collectively, annual death rates are simply not that significant. Deaths caused by man made structures is considered by most to be compensatory – simply replacing what would be natural deaths in a population.
Besides, planners can avoid migration corridors and common flight paths, waterbodies, etc., in order to mitigate loss by impacts. The larger concern with turbines is their effect on habitat, bird behaviour and society. That is, studies are showing that displacement occurs in and around turbines. Simply, nesting ground birds avoid nesting near the towers. Hypothetically, the noise and movement minimize their ability to be aware of predators. This is true for some species more than others, however, with the cumulative effects regarding grassland loss, it would seem that allowing what little grasslands we do have left, we should ensure their optimum functionality. After all, it is these habitats that are home to the bulk of our species at risk in southern Alberta.

Studies are indicating that powerlines, which are associated with energy development have similar negative effects on bird behaviour. Some birds, like the sharptailed grouse are averse to flying under powerlines and avoid them. As well, power poles have been identified as “predator subsidies” in south east Alberta where significant resources are being expended to determine negative impacts on sage grouse populations. Power poles are convenient roosting and nesting structures for predators such as raptors and the now abundant raven populations that exist out on the prairies where they have not been present in recent decades. Needless to say, careful planning is critical in drafting policy.

Governments encourage developers to avoid grasslands or mitigate their loss, which, on first blush would seem to be the right thing to do – erect them on cultivated fields where blending and dispersing is less impactful. This is all fine and good on public grazing land, however, private land is just that – and the holders are allowed to do whatever they deem appropriate. In fact, wind turbine developers offer more money in
annual payments for turbines on cultivated fields vs pastureland. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence is that some producers, in order to make their land more attractive to wind farm developers – is to break the native grass!

The use of conservation easements by conservation organizations to preserve grasslands is an effective tool that is harder to employ in some areas as some landowners do not want to encumber their land with restrictions that make it harder for proponents to erect turbines. Another unintended consequence!? One thing is for certain, wind farm developments invariably divide communities as values differ for all. It seems a shame to me that so often, they are erected in wild places far from the high use markets and very often are put – up in the hills – which are some of the last places where wild grass and wild birds call home.

The latest bane to grassland conservation is the expansion of solar panels. Admittedly, this sounds ok on first blush. Word is/was that grasslands were to be avoided, which is fine and good and protects against solar panel development on public lands. However, private landowners are free to do what they will on their own land, which is only right. The problem comes with the allure of money through government incentives and
subsidies – and they are paying good. Landowners are being offered good money per acre per year for the life of the project thanks to green infrastructure subsidies. The result is landowners are making business decisions to maximize return on investment on their assets. Again, who can blame them. They can make a lot more money doing nothing than being stuck taking care of cows all year long.

Unfortunately, the foot print of the panels is such that nothing will be able to survive underneath them. Very sad to hear that some of the largest single landowners in the Co. of Newell are considering expansion of solar panels over native prairie – one farm is tentatively scheduled to be 5000 acres in size. Worst thing is, we could put solar panels on top of our buildings – closest to where they are needed, like in urban centres where most live and minimize ecological damage on our landscape.

Unintended consequences of the green energy movement in its current rollout and haste to deploy, is simply juxta opposed to grassland conservation. Frustrating indeed and all in the name of “green” energy. Encourage your local MP or MLA to slow down policy development and think these policies through – in the name of conserving our grasslands. Going green is great, let’s just get it right for our green loving prairie wildlife.