Three wind turbines are in a row. Wind turbines are a form of renewable energy.
Wind turbines are a large focus of the work group, as they have the potential to harm wildlife, including the Indiana bat. Credit: (Canva)

For Mary Nemecek, investing in renewable energy is the right step toward reducing the effects of climate change. 

As the head of conservation for the Burroughs Audubon Society of Kansas City, Nemecek wants to save birds from the effects of climate change, which is affecting their migratory patterns, and in some cases, threatening extinction. 

But renewable energy infrastructure comes with a cost — as development increases, birds, bats and other wildlife can be pushed out of their homes.

“I think non-conflict areas have already been taken for wind projects, so now that that low-hanging fruit is taken, you’re starting to get into higher conflict with natural areas and wildlife,” Nemecek said, “non-conflict” meaning land that conservationists weren’t concerned about.

In 2021, renewable energy made up almost 12% of Missouri’s electricity generated in-state. And this number may climb as the state continues to expand its wind projects. 

To combat the impact on animals that may coincide with this expansion, Nemecek and other local conservation groups created the Missouri Energy Infrastructure Conservation Siting Work Group in 2019. 

Their goal: Protect the remaining natural spaces in Missouri from unintended consequences of renewable energy infrastructure. 

The guidelines also address solar energy, as well as pipeline and transmission infrastructure.

What the guidelines say about protecting wildlife

The work group focused almost exclusively on birds and bats, as they can be greatly affected by wind turbines. 

They recommend slowing down wind turbines during low-wind and peak bat migration times. This is known as “feathering,” and the turbine’s blades turn parallel to the wind to slow down its speed. 

“Early studies show this may reduce bat mortality by up to 30%,” according to the work group’s guidelines. 

Another recommendation is to place a 2½-mile buffer between wind energy development and critical animal habitats, because the foraging zone of the Indiana bat is that distance. The bat is common in Missouri and is classified as endangered, according to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

A cluster of Indiana bats forms in a cave. This species is listed as endangered, and wind turbines can pose a risk. (R. Andrew King/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

“I really hope that (buffer) becomes part of the regulations that counties implement,” Nemecek said.

Other guidelines include:

  • Wind farms should not be located around unique geological features, for biological and aesthetic reasons.
  • Towers and poles in grasslands should not include perches for avian predators.
  • Solar energy infrastructure should not be built on sensitive habitats, like original, unplowed prairie.
  • Clearing intact woodlands and prairie to make way for solar energy infrastructure should also be avoided. 

Courtesy of Guidelines for Conservation Siting of Energy Infrastructure in Missouri

How these guidelines will affect renewable energy

Jennifer Campbell, the policy coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation and an adviser for the work group, said the guidelines were a missing piece in the state when it came to conservation. 

While the Department of Conservation is not a regulatory agency, Campbell says it often shares helpful information with the energy industry. 

“We see that our role is to share the information we have about ways to reduce wildlife impact, and that includes what wildlife exists in the area, and technology and operational tools they can use to reduce their impacts wherever they choose to operate,” Campbell said. 

The guidelines will provide insight for the stakeholders involved in renewable energy, Carol Davit said. Davit, the executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, played a large role in crafting these guidelines.

“These are voluntary guidelines and we definitely hope that they will help any kind of energy development to really consider the best placement of these energy facilities and infrastructure,” Davit said.

The guidelines are a way to encourage dialogue between energy companies, local officials and conservation groups, Davit said. 

“We absolutely need clean energy,” Davit said. “But we want to make sure that our immediate energy needs are not compromising our future use and enjoyment of natural heritage and the habitats our wildlife depends on.”

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Abby Shepherd is a reporting intern for The Kansas City Beacon. She is from Olathe, Kansas, and is a rising senior at the University of Kansas.