Erin Baerwald is a conservation biologist and assistant professor at the University of Northern British Columbia
As a bat biologist who has spent my entire 15-year career documenting and speaking out about the impact of wind turbines on bat populations, I never thought I’d come out swinging in support of the wind-energy industry, but here I am.
The Dec. 4 decision by Ontario’s Environment Minister Jeff Yurek to cancel a 29-turbine wind farm that was under construction in Eastern Ontario is unwarranted and sets back bat conservation.
Mr. Yurek is clearly playing politics and didn’t truly have bat concerns on his mind when he cancelled a project that had experienced earlier local opposition.
The minister justified the cancellation of this project by claiming it would – in his view – cause “serious and irreversible” harm to bat populations. His conclusion is in direct contrast to the finding of an environmental appeal tribunal, which found there was low risk to bat populations and that the mitigation measures adopted by EDP Renewables, the project developer, would further reduce the risk to bats, including species at risk.
Specifically, the tribunal found no evidence that the wind project would cause “serious and irreversible harm to plant life, animal life and the natural environment,” as laid out in Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act.
Mr. Yurek’s letter announcing the decision misrepresents the science by overstating the potential damage and misidentifying the species potentially harmed by the development. He’s not actually interested in reducing harm to bats.
Some wind farms deserve criticism for failing to mitigate impact on bats, but ignoring science and making false claims in order to shut down a site undermine legitimate efforts to protect bats.
Climate change is the biggest threat to biodiversity, including bats. Transitioning away from fossil fuels is critical in our fight against climate change. Wind energy is one of the cleanest forms of electricity production there is, but all forms of electricity generation have a cost.
It’s true that some wind projects can result in unacceptable levels of bat fatalities and that wind farms can harm bat populations, but it’s not every facility and it’s not every bat species. We have scientifically proven solutions to reduce, or even completely eliminate, bat fatalities. For example, we can reduce fatalities by as much as 50 per cent by shutting turbines off in low-wind speeds during bat migration, when most bats are killed.
EDP Renewables, which developed the Nation Rise site some 40 kilometres southeast of Ottawa, had voluntarily and proactively planned on implementing proven mitigation measures to reduce fatalities, which is something that other developers should emulate. The company did this in addition to actively trying to choose a site in a low-risk area for bats. I critically reviewed its impact assessment and it went above and beyond due diligence. Companies trying to do the right thing should not be penalized. This discourages other companies from taking on ambitious renewable energy projects, which sets back both bat conservation and our fight against climate change.
Bat populations are in trouble from a myriad of threats, but this scapegoating does not help them. In this case, it is clear that bats are being used to achieve other, more political objectives. If the minister were truly concerned about reducing bat fatalities, we could have achieved this in numerous ways that would have also allowed the turbines to generate carbon-free energy.
Bats shouldn’t be used as political pawns. If the minster really cares about bats, he would find an avenue to fund research and conservation for their recovery, while helping us fight climate change – one of the biggest challenges of our time.
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