Wings and Wind: A Conservation Symphony

December 08, 2023 00:23:35
Wings and Wind: A Conservation Symphony
ESI Africa Podcast
Wings and Wind: A Conservation Symphony

Dec 08 2023 | 00:23:35

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Show Notes

In a world where sustainability and clean energy are more critical than ever, the marriage of wind power and avian preservation takes centre stage. In this podcast, we speak to Sam Ralston, Birds and Renewable Energy Manager at BirdLife South Africa, and explore the delicate balance between harnessing the power of the wind and ensuring the survival of our feathered friends.

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Speaker A: Welcome to Wings and Wind, a conservation symphony. I'm your host, Nasiako. And today we will be joined by Sam Ralston, birds and renewable energy manager at Birds Live South Africa. In a world where sustainability and clean energy are more critical than ever, the marriage of wind power and avian Preservation takes center stage. Our podcast will aim to explore the delicate balance between been harnessing the power of wind and ensuring the survival of our feathered friends. [00:00:37] Speaker B: Welcome to the ESI Africa Podcast, brought to you by your trusted Power and Energy Multimedia Journal. You can download this and all other episodes on esi Africa.com Forward Slash podcasts. Let's get into today's conversation. [00:00:58] Speaker C: To start off, I just wanted to ask you about the rate at which wind farms are actually directly impacting bird life in Africa. Do you have any stats that might help to paint a picture? [00:01:10] Speaker D: Absolutely. So, the wind farms can impact birds in different ways. There's habitat loss, fragmentation of their habitats, disturbance of breeding events, and all those things are much harder to put a figure on than the direct fatalities of birds. And in South Africa, we actually doing quite well compared to a lot of other parts of the world, where most wind farms are required to monitor the impacts on birds, and most of them share those reports with bird life South Africa. So we've got a fairly good idea of how many birds are killed per turbine per year. And if you want to figure it's on average, between three and five birds are killed per turbine per year. But that really does vary quite a lot between turbines within an individual wind farm and even between different wind farms. One wind farm up in the Northern Cape has killed almost 50 birds per turbine per year. Yeah, luckily, at that site, most of the species that were killed were quite common, so there was swifts and swallows. Which leads me to the important point. A lot of people ask how many birds? And if you look at the figures of three to five, it doesn't sound like it's a phenomenal number, but it's really important to look at which species are being affected by turbine collisions. And unfortunately, a large number of the species that are killed are birds that spend a lot of time flying, hunting your birds of prey, raptors and vultures. And those groups of birds are found in naturally low numbers, and they play a really important role in our ecosystem. They help moderate the number of prey. For example, think of predators that eat grains in a farming context. So taking out your apex predators can be quite problematic for the broader ecosystem. And we don't have a handle on how that's playing out. In South Africa, and a lot of those species that are being affected have already faced a whole bunch of other threats from poisoning, persecution. So a lot of our reactors in South Africa, including our vultures, are already threatened. So wind energy is just adding another layer of threats to a ready pressured species. [00:03:53] Speaker C: And so from a conservation perspective, why do you think this is of concern? Why do you think people should care about this? [00:03:59] Speaker D: We know that it's going to affect the conservation status of some species. So, for example, in South Africa, we've got a species called the black harrier. It's only found in southern Africa. It's got a very small population, so it's rarer than your rhinos, for example. There are about 1300 mature adults left in the world. And unfortunately, wind energy is adding to the pressure on the species. And some work done by researchers at the University of Cape Town have shown that if we increase the adult fatality of this species by just three adults per year, the population is likely to go extinct in 100 years time. And if we increase the adult fatality rate by just an additional five adults a year, the population is likely to go extinct in 75 years. We countries sitting at an estimated rate of around four birds per turbine per year. So it could exacerbate the decline of some species to a point that they even go extinct within some of our lifetimes. [00:05:15] Speaker C: And what are the current connections right now between wind power procurement and bird life conservation? Do you think that it's important for project procurers to be aware of these statistics? Do you think it could affect their development? [00:05:31] Speaker D: I must say that in South Africa, again, we are doing really well. Most wind farm developers are very sensitized to this issue. Wind farms, before they are developed, need to go through a really robust environmental impact assessment process, where these issues are hopefully robustly assessed and addressed and mitigated. So there is a really strong level of awareness amongst most reputable and experienced developers in South Africa. You do get a couple of the, I want to say cowboys, but that's probably not fair. People who are trying to enter the market without a lot of experience. And sometimes the challenges with birds do come as a bit of a shock. But what we try to do at Bird Life South Africa is engage with the wind farm developers earlier as possible to sort of unpack what the potential issues are. We've made a huge amount of information available through the national site Screening Tool, where developers can be aware of potential risks early on in the development process. We've also got a really good relationship with the South African Wind Energy association, where every year I'm invited to speak and share the sort of latest insights to wind farm developers and operators. So there's a good level of awareness and we always got more that we can do. But yeah, I think we are doing well in terms of working with industry to test and find solutions at a strategic sort of national level. There's definitely a lot more that we could do, but I maybe get into that a little bit later. [00:07:25] Speaker C: Yeah. So I'm actually interested to know then for the cowboys, as you say, who aren't as aware of the issue of bird conservation in Windpow procurement, what would you say to them then to persuade them to comply with these measures to save bird life? [00:07:45] Speaker D: I would say come talk to us as soon as you can. When you're thinking of a project, come chat with us. We'll explain what the risks are, what the options are to mitigate those risks. There's some habitats where wind energy is just a complete no go, and there are other areas where there are risks that just need to be mitigated to be minimized. And you're only doing yourself a disservice by leaving this or ignoring the issue till right at the end of your application process, because even project financiers are very aware of these issues. So you're going to encounter trouble along the way. So rather engage proactively and constructively upfront rather than land up, costing yourself a whole lot of extra time and money by ignoring the problem. [00:08:39] Speaker C: Yeah. Would you be able to elaborate a little bit more on some of the risks of ignoring compliance that they might face? [00:08:48] Speaker D: So compliance is a different issue. That's once they have environmental authorization, I'm talking about during project planning. So they need to have an environmental authorization. And some of the, I'm trying to find a more polite word than carbon, but the newer entries to the market might make a whole bunch of promises to landowners about what development could happen. They might invest in a quick and dirty environmental impact assessment thinking, appointing a bird specialist and environmental team, that kind of tells them what they want to hear. But once it comes to the public participation process in the environmental impact assessment, they're going to be questions raised, they're going to be challenges. And so their entire process is going to land up being delayed because of these issues not being properly addressed up front. And then when it comes to project finance again, it's going to be much harder for developers that haven't done good foundational work to get project finance because the big banks are going to ask questions and then even if they get to a point of getting a wind farm up and running, if the impact assessment didn't pick up key issues to birds and it somehow slipped through all those cracks, which projects have done and do, they will still be required to address any significant impacts that are recorded. So, say a wind farm goes up and it lands up killing a whole bunch of threatened vultures. The cost of mitigating that during the operation is going to be much, much bigger than if they had to mitigate it during the project planning stage, and that's that unanticipated cost. So by not addressing those issues up front, it brings a whole bunch of risk and uncertainty to whoever owns that and operates that wind farm. [00:10:55] Speaker C: Yeah. And when we met at an event earlier this year, we spoke a little bit about blade painting that we see is becoming a little bit more popularized to conserve bird life. So, could you talk to us a little bit more about other bird life conservation techniques that you think are showing promise in the African wind power industry or some that we may be able to carry over from sites overseas and international projects that we've seen? [00:11:24] Speaker D: Sure. So maybe just a bit on blade painting. We are cautiously optimistic that blade painting will have positive benefits in South Africa, but we cautious because there's only been one published study globally to demonstrate its effectiveness. And so there is a risk that it might not be as effective in different environments and for all species. Which is why BirdLife South Africa has been working with the South African Wind Energy association to try and encourage a national scale experiment to trial this. There have been some obstacles along the way, but we are quite optimistic that we're going to see it trialed at a couple of wind farms in South Africa. Other options? Firstly, location, location, location. The most cost effective and effective option to reduce harm is to put your wind farm and your wind turbines in the right place. But once you got there to that point, you found a suitable location. I don't think there's a single wind farm in South Africa that doesn't have some bird challenges. So there's a suite of other. Blade painting is the one option that we still need to trial. What's working quite well at some wind farms is observer led shutdown on demand, where they have a team of people on site during the daylight hours, literally watching to see whether a priority species, a threatened species, for example, is at risk of collisions. And if it comes within a predefined distance to a turbine, then they will then call for the turbine operator to shut that turbine down, or the handful of turbine down until that bird moves past that area and the risk is gone. Great in terms of job creation, creating a whole suite of new environmental ambassadors in South Africa, but it is a little bit fraught with human resources challenges, as well as limitations in oversight and enforcement. So, on one, it's really promising and encouraging, and it's working well at some sites, but unfortunately not at all sites, then you can do a similar approach. So shut down on demand using technology, either radar or camera devices. Again, that the technology is developing really fast and very promising. At this stage. It is, in the South African context, still really expensive, but we're hoping that as more wind farms start taking it up, that the costs of that will go down. And ideally, in South Africa, we would like to see a combination of the two. So where humans fail, the technology can step in and vice versa. So, other than that, in South Africa, once the wind farms up and running, they have trial things like habitat management elsewhere in the world, for example, making sure that the habitat beneath the turbines isn't attractive to your priority species. But that comes with its own complexities. Certainly, for wind farms that overlap with vulture habitats, another thing that they need to do, which works well, but in terms of minimizing the risk, but not eliminating it, is making sure that there no other animal carcasses around the wind farm. So often a wind farm will be constructed in an environment where farming practice continue beneath the turbines. So you need to make sure that the farmer is not leaving any animal carcasses which will attract the vultures and increase the collision risk. [00:15:30] Speaker C: And which of all of these techniques do you think has been the most successful in South Africa specifically? [00:15:37] Speaker D: That's a tricky question. I'd go back to the location. As I said, we haven't managed to eliminate the risk. I think almost every single operational wind farm in South Africa that has been monitoring for any period of time and has a number of one or two wind farms that are quite small, that haven't killed threatened species. Yes, but most of the larger ones that have monitored for more than a year have killed at least one threatened species. So location alone hasn't been able to eliminate the risk. I think it's about having an in combination approach. There's no one solution. It's find the right location, then look at your operational phase mitigation at the same time. And one of the trickier things that we have to start thinking about, I think, in South Africa, is compensation or biodiversity offsets for species. So where you've done everything in your power to reduce the risk and incidents still happen, try and invest in mechanisms to eliminate other sources of fatality. For example, making power lines more bird safe is one obvious option. But, yeah, we've got quite a long way to go in terms of getting good data to support that. [00:17:06] Speaker C: And that is one of the key points that was brought up in a discussion that you were a part of, is that data, as well as the repercussions for fatalities, is quite limited at the moment. So what would you like to see being done in terms of creating adequate repercussions for interfering with bird life in wind power projects? [00:17:28] Speaker D: So, as I sort of alluded to earlier, we're really good in South Africa at the impact assessment side of things. And once farms operational, they have what's known as an environmental management program, which sets out a whole bunch of activities that wind farms are legally obliged to implement. And one of those often relate to monitoring birds. And Normally it will state something along the lines that if significant fatalities of birds do happen, the wind farm needs to implement additional things, for example, shutdown on demand. But the challenge is that there's no, at this stage, coordinated, proactive oversight of compliance with those requirements for implementing the environmental management programs. So unless someone like Bird Life South Africa picks up that there's a problem, wind farms can get away with not implementing that additional mitigation for years. I've got one wind farm in the Eastern Cape that after five years as a specialist, saying you need to do additional mitigation to address fatalities of Cape vulture. They still haven't done anything after five years, and fatalities are ongoing. And it's so frustrating because it is entirely avoidable and that lack of compliance. But a couple of wind farms is having negative impacts for the entire industry because we now sitting at a stage where we can't rely on operational phase mitigation. So we much more cautious about where Birdlife South Africa will and won't support wind energy facilities that are proposed. So what we need, I think, is a proactive program of oversight and enforcement, where there's a regular review and regular enforcement where necessary by the department against those wind farms that aren't complying. And if that's not going to be possible, I think that wind farms should be held publicly accountable, so there should be public disclosure. They need to be required to share their monitoring data and reports in a public platform. So the project financiers, their neighbors, surrounding NGOs, whoever's interested can go and say to Xwin Farm, you've made these commitments, you're not doing it. What are you going to do about it. So then there's a bit of a reputational risk too. [00:20:13] Speaker C: Okay. So in closing, I'm sure there might be some conflict, perhaps in people's minds, because of the fact that curtailment is a very big issue at the moment in terms of wind power projects. And of course, conservation of bird life might need curtailment to become more prominent. So how do you think, if people have an issue with this? And since there is so much power needed in South Africa because of the current energy supply issues, how do you think that wildlife conservation and wind power procurement can coexist properly in future projects? [00:20:50] Speaker D: They have to coexist. We don't have a mean we most definitely need renewable energy and we most definitely need biodiversity conservation because biodiversity really protects us from the impacts of global climate change, doesn't it? So we also have to acknowledge that there are some areas that are just too special and too sensitive where spatially we don't want them to overlap. But there are a whole bunch of areas where impacts can be managed to acceptable levels. And when the introduction of wind energy infrastructure into those areas could, with enough commitment and oversight and coordination, could actually result in a positive conservation outcome for the area. So from increased awareness, improved management of remaining habitat, even sort of proactive stewardship, or proactive like formal conservation of remaining habitat. So increasingly, the discussions are no longer just about minimizing harm to the environment, but we need to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. So wind farms could play a role in improving the overall biodiversity in an area and contributing to sort of ultimately net biodiversity gain. But yeah, we need government and industry to really step up and meet this challenge. [00:22:23] Speaker C: Well, thank you so much, Sam, for busting a few myths that some people might have had about bird life conservation in the wind power industry and just answering some of our questions. I'm sure it might be very useful to all of our listeners out there. So thank you for your time. [00:22:39] Speaker D: It's an absolute pleasure. Thank you for the platform. And if any of your listeners do want to contact us, please go to our website. There's a whole suite of resources. Otherwise, you're welcome to drop me an email at [email protected] za or go to our website, which is ww birdlife.org za. [00:23:09] Speaker B: You have been listening to an ESI Africa podcast. For the latest news, reports and interviews on power, energy and related industries, visit the Africa website on esi Africa.com or follow us on social media. Until next time, thank you for tuning in.

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