April 28, 2013

New Wind Technology Offers Hope for Birds

I’m excited to welcome Dr. Sheila Colby as a guest blogger today. She shares a story about her very special Earth Day – a day she spent with three friends who are helping to solve energy problems without endangering wildlife. Her story sheds light on several issues that will help us better prepare our students to make decisions about these technologies. May 17th is Endangered Species Day, and this topic would be a perfect one to explore that week. ~ Laura

New Wind Technology Offers Hope for Birds
by Dr. Sheila Colby

Have you ever seen bird ballet? It’s true, not only are birds fabulous singers, some, like these starlings, are exceptional dancers. The filmmaker Neels Castleton caught starling ballet on this video taken in Marseilles, France earlier this year.

There are so many bird species, with so many fascinating behaviors, unfortunately, many of us may never get to experience these rarities if we humans don’t change how we meet our energy needs. Thankfully, there is hope for wildlife with technology that offers new solutions to these challenging problems.

Connecting People who Care About the Earth
On Earth Day this year, what could be better than spending time on a lovely nature reserve with friends who are all working to make the world a safer place for birds and wildlife while meeting our energy needs? Hamid Saadat and Randy Abraham are experts in a type of clean energy called “distributed renewable energy” that reduces the need to destroy wildlife habitat in order to produce energy. It’s a big win for habitat, thus biodiversity conservation.

When I found out that these gentlemen just installed a new bird-friendly wind turbine on a rooftop in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, I was so excited that I just had to take them to meet Dr. Michael Hamilton! Dr. Hamilton is the Director of the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve (BORR), a magical place in Santa Clara County, California.  Even though Randy and Hamid are urban engineers and Michael works on a wildlife reserve, they share the common goal of caring about the earth and are taking action to do something about it.

Biodiversity Conservation Research
Not only is the BORR habitat for gorgeous Blue Oaks, this lovely 3,200-acre property is set aside and just perfectly suited for university researchers to study climate change, biodiversity and even test new biosensor technology. It is home to about 130 species of birds, 41 species of mammals, at least seven species of amphibians, more than 14 species of reptiles, seven species of fish, and hundreds of species of invertebrates.

We all talked about the kickoff of Michael’s new project that also makes the needs of wildlife a top priority. While Michael lived “off the grid” for more than 32 years on University of California Nature Reserves, he became knowledgeable about distributed solar energy, which is now a mature distributed power technology. Today he is working on an ambitious new project to apply that know-how to build an entire earth-friendly environmental research station – completely off the grid and powered by solar energy generated right on site.

Small, Distributed Wind Energy Technology
From an environmental impact view, distributed energy can be one of the best choices for clean energy, because it is generated right where it is consumed. When it comes to these new smaller distributed wind energy devices, like the one Randy is working to develop, they have minimal environmental impact. This is because, like solar power, wind energy can be generated right on the rooftop of a department store or home in an urban environment.

The new 30-foot wind turbine that Randy and Hamid just installed in the Golden Gate Park in March - and will soon power the Historic Cliff House gift shop - was carefully placed on a part of the building where it is pretty hard to see. This one is the first of its kind in the United States. When I said to Randy, “Wow, I was just up at Land’s End looking down at the Cliff House last weekend, I didn’t even see it!” he replied, “That’s good, we wanted to generate power without impacting the beautiful view.”  In addition, it doesn’t make noise like some other types of wind turbines. This technology promises to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas production.

The goals of this project are to increase public awareness of wind power’s potential, provide environmentally responsible power for the Cliff House, and study bird safety techniques. The new wind turbine design really takes the safety and habitat needs of birds and other wildlife into consideration. This type of environmentally thoughtful wind energy means no habitat destruction from mining, drilling, power line installation, and no habitat destroyed or used for transporting the energy. 

Wind Energy and Bird Safety
Are you aware that over 19,000 birds were killed by windmills in 2009 (B. Sovacool, 2013. Renewable Energy 49: p 19-24)? Bird loss due to windmills is still far less than loss due to predation by feral cats, building windows, fossil fuels and other causes, but a loss of 19,000 birds in one year doesn’t seem acceptable to me, especially because as these new technologies become commonplace, we would expect the losses to climb with it.

That’s why I was so excited to meet Randy and Hamid, pioneering engineers from DirectNuEnergy who strive to create new technologies that allow us to live in harmony with nature. Not only are their windmills designed to be bird safe, they’re quiet and unobtrusive, rather than towering above the landscape and destroying scenic views.  

As energy technology developers, part of their job is to look into their crystal ball and see what the future will look once thousands or hundreds of thousands of these devices are installed in and around cities or at coastlines. They doing a great job helping us to prepare for a time when millions of homes and businesses will need a source of distributed energy and do not want to sacrifice the safety of any birds in the process. They are doing this so that we can all live in a better balance with nature. 

I’d like to share DirectNuEnergy's beautiful new wind turbine with you through this video.

You can learn more about this new wind turbine on the DirectNuEnergy website.

Thoughtful Design Brings New Hope for Birds

You can see that the windmill turns rather slowly. Randy and Hamid believe that this poses less of a risk for birds than some other wind power designs with faster rotation, because it gives them time to get out of the way. As part of the project, Randy will study the impact of his technology on birds. He is also interested in the impact on bats and thinks there might be a way to use IR cameras to look at that, too. Because similar technology has been used overseas for many years without any reports of bird mortality, Randy believes that it’s not likely to be a threat to birds, but he will collect data here at the Cliff House to assess the impact.

It was such a special Earth Day to me to spend the day with professionals who are applying their expertise to solving big biodiversity conservation and energy production problems at the same time. It is very comforting and gives me hope for the future of our featured friends and our lovely blue planet.

Thank you to Hamid and Randy for sharing their story and for their work creating a future where we can live in a better harmony with nature. Thank you to Michael and Jennifer Hamilton for hosting us at the beautiful BORR on Earth Day.

I ask all of you to help us spread the word about new wildlife-friendly energy technology designs by sharing this story of hope with your students and friends. It may ultimately be up to us as consumers to find out about these innovative energy designs and help them take flight!

Sheila Colby, PhD, is a lover of both birds and innovative technology. She has a Bachelors of Science degree in Zoology from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of California, Davis. For nearly two decades, she has been working to bring innovative technology to life. She is the owner of GenomicEdge Marketing Services and resides in Silicon Valley, California. (By the way, Sheila is also my sister!)

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