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Biologist’s goal: wind turbines that kill fewer bats and birds

Adam Gravel, on his property in Durham, Maine
Yoon S. Byun for the Boston Globe
Adam Gravel, on his property in Durham, Maine

Some conservationists say that wind turbines kill thousands of bats and birds every year. It’s usually due to collisions with the giant turbine blades, often during fall and spring migrations. But the perception that wind turbine sites are littered with all sorts of dead carcasses isn’t totally accurate, says Adam Gravel, a wildlife biologist who has been documenting the impact of wind energy projects for more than a decade.

As an environmental specialist for the engineering consulting firm Stantec, Gravel has worked on 60 wind energy projects, from New England to California, finding a balance between mitigating habitat impact while installing modern turbine technology to provide renewable energy.

When Gravel started in the field, working as a project technician, he was assessing the turbine-related fatality rate for songbirds like red-eyed vireos, golden-crowned kinglets, and magnolia warblers. He spent hours on remote ridgetops, living out of the back of a Dodge Ram truck, running radar and acoustic studies at proposed turbine sites. He rigged up a marine radar connected to a computer, looked at blips on the screen produced by a flying object, and then panned the sky with binoculars to get a visual confirmation of the target.

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In the case of bats, the data showed that curtailing wind turbines during certain times of the day or year could reduce the number of deaths.

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New equipment and ways of positioning turbines are also protecting species once at risk, including eagles.

Gravel, 38, is project scientist and field manager based in Topsham, Maine. He considers himself a middleman between regulatory agencies and applicants, helping to establish a collaborative dialogue that reaches the safest resolution for the environment.

“If we don’t develop wind farms, we don’t impact our environment, but that’s not reality,” says Gravel, an avid outdoorsman who is driven by his love for nature. The Globe spoke with him about his role in the development of wind farms:

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a passion for the woods and wildlife. I grew up in rural Solon, Maine, a small town near the Kennebec River. I went to college for civil engineering and was on academic probation for the first two years — I just wasn’t interested in what I was doing. Finally, as a sophomore, I transferred to wildlife management and went from Cs and Ds to As and Bs. When I graduated, I thought I’d be putting on the traditional green uniform as a wildlife biologist for a state or federal agency. But turnover in those agencies is very low and it’s hard to find a position there, so I ended up building houses for three years.

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“Finally, I found a job with a small environmental consulting company at a proposed wind energy project. I was fortunate to get involved and quickly became one of the leading wind energy experts with avian and bat risk assessments.

“I’ve been in this industry since the beginning, and we’ve learned a lot about why and when animals collide with turbines. Regulations have increased in some states and decreased in others, and there’s more focus on habitat protection and benefiting species instead of spending lots of money on surveys to collect data.

“Also, we are the only industry looking at bird and bat fatalities – you could put up a skyscraper in Boston but not require bird permitting — yet windows kill more birds than wind turbines.

“I’ve always loved birds. When I did a paper on peregrine falcons in fourth grade. I developed a passion for peregrines. I didn’t know my birds very well so it got to be a family joke, because every bird I saw in the sky, I thought was a peregrine.

“And now, to come full circle, I was awarded a Stantec innovation grant for peregrine research and have been tracking adult female peregrines with satellite transmitters to follow their behaviors. They’re the coolest fast bird and a complete success story, as they’re now off the federal endangered species list.

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“So whether it’s protecting peregrines, songbirds, or bats, I’m so pleased to have a role benefitting the environment.”

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.