A subsidiary of one of the largest U.S. providers of renewable energy was ordered to pay over $8 million in fines and restitution, after at least 150 eagles were killed at its wind farms in eight states: Wyoming, California, New Mexico, North Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and Illinois. ESI Energy, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, was sentenced to five years of probation, after being charged with three counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for the deaths of nine eagles at three wind farms in Wyoming and New Mexico. The company acknowledged that at least 150 bald and golden eagles had died at its facilities since 2012, and that 136 of those deaths were “affirmatively determined to be attributable to the eagle being struck by a wind turbine blade.” Because the bodies of the birds are not always found, officials believe the number killed is likely higher than the 150 birds cited in court documents. The deaths occurred across 50 of the 154 wind farms that the company operates in the United States.
Almost all of the eagles killed were struck by the blades of wind turbines. According to prosecutors, the company’s failure to take steps to protect eagles or to obtain permits to kill the birds gave it an advantage over competitors that did take such steps. Historically, companies have been able to avoid prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act if they take steps to avoid deaths and seek permits for those that occur. ESI Energy was warned that eagles would be killed if the company built two wind farms in central and southeastern Wyoming, and the risk to eagles when it authorized the repowering of a New Mexico wind farm, about 170 miles from Albuquerque.
Most of the eagles killed at the ESI and NextEra wind farms were golden eagles. There are an estimated 31,800 golden eagles in the Western U.S. with an estimated 2,200 killed annually due to human causes, or about 60 percent of all deaths. According to a study released by eagle researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other entities, golden eagle deaths “will likely increase in the future” because of wind energy development and other human activities.
Bird deaths are not extraordinary, with some estimates that cats kill as many as 3 billion birds annually. However, it is the type of birds and especially bats which have rapidly caught the attention of biologists. Cat predation happens among common birds with enormous populations close to the ground, while wind turbines are particularly devastating to birds of prey because of their height and to bats because of their unique physical characteristics. Bats are the leading insect eating species at night and healthy populations have a positive impact upon agriculture production and limit the need for additional pesticide use across wide areas of the nation.
ESI agreed to spend up to $27 million during its five-year probationary period on measures to prevent future eagle deaths that include shutting down turbines at times when eagles are more likely to be present. Despite those measures, the company will pay $29,623 per dead eagle should one die under their plea deal. The company will also loose government funds if they must stop operating. Wind companies receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal tax credits from the wind power they produce—a Production Tax Credit—but get nothing if the turbine is not operating. Despite these eagle killings, President Joe Biden is pushing for more renewable energy, primarily from wind and solar power—both of which are known to kill birds, and cost the federal taxpayer enormous amounts in subsidies.
Production Tax Credit for Wind
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 enacted the renewable electricity production tax credit (PTC) at $0.015/kWh, adjusted for inflation, and available for the first 10 years of a wind turbine’s operating life. The provision was set to expire in mid-1999. Beginning in 1999, the PTC was extended 13 times and most recently in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. The U.S. Congress passed a $1.4 trillion federal spending and tax extension package that included a one-year extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind power and an extension through 2025 for offshore wind tax credits.
The wind industry claims that utility-scale wind power is already cost-competitive against coal-fired power across the world and with natural-gas-fired power in many markets and yet the industry acts like they need the tax credit to exist. As Warren Buffett said, “For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.” Despite billions of dollars in federal subsidies over the past 30 years and state mandates requiring renewable generation, wind power provided only 8 percent of the nation’s electricity and just 3 percent of the nation’s primary energy in 2021.
According to an estimate from the Joint Committee on Taxation, the latest extension of the wind industry’s PTC will cost $1.7 billion between 2020 and 2030 and the tax credit extension for offshore wind will cost an additional $362 million. Those dollars will be added to the $34 billion in PTC that will be collected by the wind industry between 2020 and 2029, according to the Treasury Department.
The figure below provides the federal tax subsidies for electricity generation across all technologies between 2010 and 2019. The PTC is the single most expensive energy subsidy in the federal tax code and is estimated to cost taxpayers about $40 billion from 2018 to 2027.
Dividing total federal subsidies from 2010 to 2019 by total electricity generated provides the cost of the subsidies to taxpayers per unit of electricity produced. Wind had the second largest subsidies per unit of electricity produced across technologies with solar being the highest. Nuclear and fossil fuels generate much more electricity relative to the subsidies they receive, which indicates they are less dependent on subsidies for their revenue and profitability than wind and solar. (See Figure below.)
The wind industry has finally been held accountable for the bird deaths that it has caused with ESI Energy being ordered to pay over $8 million in fines and restitution for over 150 eagle deaths. The wind industry has received billions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government over the past 30 years and will continue to do so as the production tax credit allows them to collect tax credits over the first ten years of a turbine’s operating life. President Biden is advocating for more wind and solar power in his goal for net zero carbon electricity by 2035 and has tried to extend renewable subsidies in his Build Back Better bill, which fortunately for taxpayers did not pass Congress.