Renewable Energy with Fewer Casualties

Towering wind turbines and soaring eagles might collide in the imagination to conjure visions of a greener future. However, when actual collisions between eagles and turbine blades occur, the resulting bird deaths and injuries aren’t exactly sustainable, particularly for protected species.

To learn more about how to mitigate this wildlife conundrum, a team of researchers will develop the technology needed to detect eagles headed towards turbine blades, deter eagles on approach, and identify when blade strikes do occur. If successful, these systems could someday help make wind energy projects safer for wildlife worldwide.

The U.S. Department of Energy Wind Technology Office awarded a $625,000 grant to a team of Oregon State scientists, including Roberto Albertani, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Matthew Johnston, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Sinisa Todorovic, associate professor of computer science. The team also includes Manuela Huso, a biological statistician, and Todd Katzner, a wildlife biologist, from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“If we strike a generic bird, sad as that is, it’s not as critical as striking a protected golden eagle, which would cause the shutdown of a wind farm for a period of time, a fine to the operator, big losses in revenue, and most important the loss of a member of a protected species,” said Albertani. Bald eagles are also a species of concern around wind power projects.

Computer-connected cameras mounted to the turbine towers will identify whether incoming birds are eagles, and determine if their flight paths are at risk of being suddenly altered or terminated by whirling turbine blades.

If these criteria are met, a brightly colored, ground-level deterrent designed to resemble humans moving about will be triggered. “We want the deterrent to be simple and affordable,” Albertani said. “There’s no research available, but hopefully those will deter the eagles from coming closer to the turbines.”

Blades of the turbine will each be equipped with a vibration sensor that can detect the tell-tale thump of a bird impact. Recorded video from blade-mounted micro-cameras can be reviewed to determine if an impact was caused by an eagle.

Field testing will occur at the North American Wind Research and Training Center in New Mexico, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s National Wind Technology Center in Colorado, as well as locations in Oregon and California.

By Matthew Hunt