A New Study in Wyoming Will Test Whether Black Paint Helps Birds Avoid Wind Turbines

The research aims to evaluate the effects of contrast painting on wind turbine rotor blades in the largest such study yet.

In Glenrock, Wyoming, three dozen wind turbines are each getting a single blade painted black. The new study will evaluate how this paint job increases visibility—and reduces risks—for eagles, other birds, and bats. Led by PacifiCorp with the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute (REWI) and research partners, the study shows how conservation and wind energy generation can go hand in hand. 

Audubon has advocated for this research as a founder and member of REWI and as part of its work supporting wind facilities that are sited and operated responsibly. Two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction due to climate change, and wind energy will be key to protecting them by slowing global temperature rise. Staff work to make sure that projects avoid, minimize, and mitigate negative impacts on birds and people.

The Glenrock/Rolling Hills wind facility study is guided by the theory that contrast painting reduces motion smear, the visual effect where fast-moving objects appear blurry. If birds and bats can perceive painted rotor blades, this could help them notice wind turbines in time to avoid them. The technique has the potential to significantly reduce collisions at wind facilities with little need for maintenance, infrastructure, or other constraints that current technologies require.

This study will build on research from the Smøla wind-power plant in Norway, where a small sample of turbines had one of three blades painted black. The results, published in July of 2020, showed that the turbines with contrast painting had a significantly lower annual fatality rate, with related bird mortality declining by over 70 percent. This was especially good news for White-tailed Eagles: they had been a primary species of concern at Smøla due to high collision rates, then the study found no fatalities after painting. 

The results from Norway were promising but preliminary—the study itself reported the need to be replicated in other locations and habitats. With a larger sample size and additional analysis of different bird species and locations, the Glenrock/Rolling Hills study will be the biggest of its kind in the world to date. The results will help determine whether the wind industry can use contrast painting to help ensure that birds avoid wind turbines. 

This kind of research is important for states like Wyoming, according to Daly Edmunds of Audubon Rockies, a regional office of the National Audubon Society. “As interest in renewable energy development increases in the West, especially in places like Wyoming that also support amazing wildlife resources, we need innovative technologies and tested tools to minimize impacts,” Edmunds says. “We are hopeful that this collaborative study provides us confirmation that we have a new, simple and effective tool to minimize conflicts between birds and turbines.”

After years of work, the research team secured approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to alter the color of the wind turbine blades. Now the research will be carried out with expertise and support from partners including the United States Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Oregon State University, Invenergy, and NextEra Energy. This unprecedented and promising new collaboration shows how clean energy developers, scientists, conservation organizations, academia, federal regulators, and wildlife managers can work together to find climate and biodiversity solutions. 

The Glenrock/Rolling Hills wind facility research is expected to continue for several years starting in 2024, once all 36 study turbines are operating with painted blades. Since contrast painting worked in Norway, Audubon is hopeful that painting blades could prove to be a simple solution to avoiding or minimizing impacts on eagles and other birds in North America. This would help us advance the build out of responsibly sited and operated wind projects to keep warming down to save our birds.