What Trump got right and wrong about windmills
President Trump, who has more bad blood with windmills than Sancho Panza, laid into his least favorite form of energy again over the weekend, blaming wind power for killing bald eagles while spewing greenhouse gasses into the air.
In comments to the conservative student group Turning Point USA, Trump told attendees that he “never understood” the appeal of wind.
“A windmill will kill many bald eagles,” he said. “After a certain number, they make you turn the windmill off, that is true. By the way, they make you turn it off. And yet, if you killed one, they put you in jail. That is OK. But why is it OK for windmills to destroy the bird population?”
Trump got a few things right in his tirade, but even more wrong. Here’s a look.
Do windmills kill a lot of birds?
Yes, but windmills are far from being the main culprit in bird deaths.
Windmills kill anywhere from 234,000 to 328,000 birds a year, according to a study by federal scientists. That’s no small number, but it does pale in comparison to the number of birds killed elsewhere.
A USA Today review of the study noted that collisions with cell and radio towers cause an estimated 6.8 million deaths, while cats kill a staggering 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds a year.
So are windmills destroying the bird population, as Trump claims? No; collisions with animals, rather than infrastructure, are the big problem there.
But those numbers are of course alarming to those with a passion for protecting wildlife.
The report prompted the Audubon Society to ask if windmills will ever be safe for birds.
“Sure, it’s green energy—but it also results in hundreds of thousands of bird deaths each year,” said the group, which advocates suppliers work with conservation groups when planning new projects.
More recent studies about bird decline found the U.S. and Canada lost 3 billion birds over the last 50 years, citing pesticide use, habitat loss and climate change as the main features fueling the trend.
Do windmills kill many bald eagles?
“Many,” the figure Trump gave Saturday, is a relative term, and one he’s gotten in trouble for using in the past.
In 2012, Trump tweeted that “windmills are the greatest threat in the US to both bald and golden eagles.” In 2016, he said that “the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles. … They’re killing them by the hundreds.”
There’s not great data on this, but experts have refuted this oft-repeated claim before.
Shawn Smallwood, a California ornithologist, told PolitiFact that about 100 eagles die each year due to impacts with wind turbines.
“Cumulatively over time, there have been hundreds of eagles killed, probably about 2,000,” he told the publication.
As with Trump’s claim for birds in general, the bigger threat lies elsewhere.
“In truth, wind turbine collisions comprise a fraction of human-caused eagle losses,” Obama-era U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe wrote in 2016. “Most result from intentional and accidental poisoning and purposeful shooting. The majority of non-intentional loss occurs when eagles collide with cars or ingest lead shot or bullet fragments in remains and gut piles left by hunters. Others collide with or are electrocuted on power lines.”
Trump likes to showcase the effects of windmills on one of America’s prized protected species, but remember his administration this year issued a sweeping roll back of the Endangered Species Act.
Trump’s claim that “after a certain number, they make you turn the windmill off” is also not true.
“There is no certain number of bald eagles a wind turbine can kill before it must be shut off,” the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) wrote in a response to Trump’s comments.
Are windmills foreign-made pollution spewers?
Trump’s comments Saturday were not just limited to birds.
“I know windmills very much, I have studied it better than anybody. I know it is very expensive. They are made in China and Germany mostly, very few made here, almost none, but they are manufactured, tremendous — if you are into this — tremendous fumes and gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right?”
Trump’s not wrong that many wind turbines are produced in China, but the U.S. is also one of the globe’s top manufacturers. There is also a growing U.S. industry in installing them, not to mention the increasing demand for clean forms of energy like solar and wind.
Which gets to his next point: Is windmill production spewing fumes and gasses into the atmosphere?
The AWEA found that wind farms around the world generated enough energy to avoid 200 million tons of carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels last year and estimates that most wind power plants repay their own carbon footprints within about six months of operation, offering carbon-free electricity for the rest of their 20-to-30-year lifespan.
Updated on Dec. 24 at 10:40 a.m.
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