Off the Atlantic coast, several wind projects are in development — including off the coast of New Jersey. These power projects are expected to provide energy to millions of households, create thousands of jobs, and greatly reduce carbon emissions.
In a recent executive order, Gov. Phil Murphy delineated New Jersey’s offshore wind goal of 7,500 megawatts by 2035. Alongside the state’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2050, declared in another executive order, this endorsement of wind energy is helping New Jersey lead the charge in ending reliance on fossil fuels as climate change takes its toll on our state and our planet. These goals are ambitious, but necessary, to address the effects of climate change.
But when it comes to offshore wind projects, what about the birds migrating through the project areas and other wildlife residing or feeding there? All forms of energy — fossil fuels, solar, wind, geothermal — impact wildlife. The question is to what extent.
Fossil fuels are themselves not “for the birds.” The scientific consensus is that our changing climate has significant negative impacts on habitat by altering the landscape, primarily through more frequent and intense floods and droughts, which can disrupt feeding and spawning patterns. Without action, these impacts will be exacerbated.
Since 1970, the U.S. and Canada have already lost three billion birds due to climate change, according to a 2019 study published in Science. Yes, three billion. In addition, the National Audubon Society predicts that “two-thirds of North American birds are at an increasing risk of extinction from global temperature rise.” Loss of birds means degraded ecosystems, as birds control pests (like the invasive spotted lanternfly), pollinate flowers, and regenerate forests by spreading seeds.
To avoid the catastrophic bird loss, we must move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources like wind energy. While some argue that wind turbines’ structures pose a risk to birds’ safety, how significant these hazards are depends on the location of the turbines and the migratory paths of the birds themselves. The Atlantic Flyway is a major north-south path for migratory birds in North America, starting in Greenland, then following the Atlantic coast to South America and the Caribbean. Scientists — including our own New Jersey Audubon scientists — travel along these migratory paths to better understand how, when, and where the birds travel so engineers can avoid placing turbines in locations that would interfere with the migration.
Of course, turbines placed within the migratory paths pose more of a collision risk than turbines placed farther away. The original sites for offshore wind development in New Jersey were three miles offshore. However, there was evidence that turbines in this location would threaten birds and marine mammals. Groups like New Jersey Audubon and National Wildlife Federation succeeded in pressuring the government to site the turbines farther offshore.
Since then, technical experts in the Atlantic Coast states have investigated and compared the effects of turbines (in the originally identified sites three miles offshore vs. the current placement 15 miles offshore) using data from European, Canadian, and U.S. studies. It’s not surprising that the predictions show significant collision and displacement at three miles from shore and minimal impacts at 15 miles. Similarly, studies conducted off the coast of New York, described in a report on offshore wind impacts to birds and bats, show that most birds live or migrate in nearshore areas (within the three-mile mark).
Some do migrate much farther out, even reaching the 15-mile mark. However, many bird species are able to avoid the turbines by altering their flight path. The same New York report states that some gull species avoid turbines even on their migration pathway. Primarily, they have concluded that birds fare better when the turbines are sited as far from shore as possible, such as the recent projects selected in New Jersey.
Monitoring and assessment are critical to protecting birds. New Jersey Audubon and other conservation organizations support offshore wind energy as long as it is responsibly sited 15 miles offshore and developers assess the impact on birds before, during, and after construction.
“But what about the view?” offshore wind opponents ask. You would need binoculars to see the turbines 15 miles offshore. A better use for those binoculars would be to track some of the many birds that depend on the Jersey Shore to feed during their migrations, like the American oystercatcher, osprey, brant, ruddy turnstone, or any of various gulls. You’ll get a better view of the birds than the turbines.
Eileen Murphy is vice president of government affairs at New Jersey Audubon.