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Balancing renewable energy developments and biodiversity

As demand for renewable energy grows in Africa, so does risk to biodiversity particularly birds. BirdLife Africa’s Flyways Programme Manager Alex Ngari, highlights what these energy developments mean to energy utilities and biodiversity, and what can be done to address this growing challenge.

Let’s begin by discussing the increase in renewable energy developments in Africa, and what are some of the factors driving this trend? 

Africa has the lowest access to electricity per capita; more than 600 million people have no access to electricity, and the majority that do, have to contend with unreliable supply. This portends a significant impediment to Africa’s socio-economic development, with this energy deficiency costing the continent 2-4% of Gross Domestic Product annually. Energy demands are on the rise and as a result, there is emergence of many power generation and transmission programmes and expansion of existing ones across the continent. Over the last 15 years, Africa has witnessed a 60% increase in uptake of renewable energy.

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What are the effects of these developments on biodiversity, particularly on birds?      

Poorly deployed energy projects and infrastructure have negative consequences to both biodiversity and businesses. Such projects often attract opposition from the public, leading to expensive losses through delayed implementation, redesigning or stoppage altogether. Further, when such projects deploy wildlife-unfriendly infrastructure they put birds, bats and other vulnerable taxa in grave danger. Every year, millions of birds die from electrocution or collision with poorly sited and designed energy infrastructure, leading to power disruptions and economic losses worth millions of dollars.

Can you give some examples of particular endangered or threatened bird species that are being impacted by renewable energy development on the continent?

The large-bodied birds and many raptor species are particularly vulnerable to negative interactions with energy infrastructure. A good example is the long distance migratory Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) which is Red Listed by IUCN as Globally Endangered. This bird has died in hundreds and perhaps in thousands due electrocution and collision with powerlines using designs un-friendly to nature. Energy generating wind turbines pose the greatest threat to vulnerable birds. In South Africa, where most studies have been done on the subject, Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis), Jackal Buzzard, and Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) have been the most frequently reported raptor fatalities. Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and the near-endemic Black Harrier (Circus maurus) have also been recorded as fatalities.  Without careful planning of the sector and deployment of associated infrastructure, there is habitat destruction, displacement & disturbance, barrier effect, injury and mortality including indirect effects on birds and other biodiversity.

What does this interaction mean to energy utilities?

Negative interactions between birds and energy infrastructure means a lot to the power utilities. It means, unreliable power supply, revenue losses, expensive retrofitting of grids, project delays, exposure to litigation, public outcry and opposition to poorly sited projects and loss of customer satisfaction and trust, just to name a few. All these problems mean that badly deployed power infrastructure is unsustainable, but these problems can be avoided.

What are some of the mitigation measures and tools that can be used to address this challenge?

It is possible to avoid and mitigate against negative impacts of energy sector development on nature, by mainstreaming biodiversity considerations in the early stages of project development. Early biodiversity mainstreaming also allows pre-empting of economic losses by utilities. For example, BirdLife and partners are collaborating with stakeholders in the energy sector to provide practical knowledge expertise, advisory services, and technical assistance on planning and deployment of energy programmes focussing on 3 vital areas in the energy production chain namely planning, generation and transmission

  • At the planning stage, the use of Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) at policy or programme level to help in these developments, is critical.  In addition, risk screening, and sensitivity mapping tool and use of Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT) to map out suitability areas for these developments
  •  At the generation stage, the use of mitigation measures such as shut down on demand for windfarms to prevent collision with turbines
  • For power transmission and Distribution stages, there is need to ensure  use of nature friendly  powerline infrastructure, and install mitigation  measures to  improve visibility of the wires, insulation and isolation equipment at dangerous spots

So far, where has these been mitigation measures/tools used in Africa, and what has been the impact of this usage?

These mitigation measures are increasingly being taken up. For example in Egypt, at 240MW Gabal-el Zayt wind farm located in the western coast of the Gulf of Suez. The region has some of the best wind regimes for wind power generation in the world. A staggering 400,000 birds from 41 migratory species have been recorded within the wind farm during spring migration alone. The wind farm and others in the region clearly poses a big threat to the birds. BirdLife engaged various stakeholders including Gabal-el Zayt management, government bodies and investors to resolve the problem, and developed a Shut-Down-On-Demand (SHOD) protocol to reduce the collision risks.  Following this, implementation, massive bird mortalities have been averted and without significant power losses to the wind farm.

Another example is in Sudan, Port Sudan where a 31-km long powerline constructed in the 1950s, was estimated to have killed thousands of long distance migratory Egyptian Vultures (Neophron percnopterus) which is Red Listed by IUCN as Globally Endangered. The electrocution of the vultures also led to severe power outages on the line. Through BirdLife’s engagements with NGO partners, the national power transmission and distribution utilities and other relevant government agencies of Sudan to fix the line. Through this intervention, the entire stretch was replaced with an insulated line in 2013. To date, no bird electrocutions from the line have been reported and the associated power outages have disappeared. This intervention received global accolades and was the recipient of the 2015 “Good Practice Award” from Renewables-Grid-Initiative (RGI) in the environmental protection category.

As the world celebrated World Migratory Bird Day on 10 October, what was your parting shot?

BirdLife International joined the world to mark the World Migratory Bird Day, to celebrate the bird migration phenomena, as billions of Birds Connect Our World. However, many migratory species are vulnerable to poorly deployed energy infrastructure. Renewable energy cannot be ‘green’ if the associated infrastructure continues to kill birds and harm other biodiversity. Consequently, we are calling for the adequate mainstreaming of biodiversity conservation concerns in energy sector to ensure a win-win for all.

Babalwa Bungane
Babalwa Bungane is the content producer for ESI Africa - Clarion Events Africa. Babalwa has been writing for the publication for over five years. She also contributes to sister publications; Smart Energy International and Power Engineering International. Babalwa is a social media enthusiast.