Transmission is the backbone of the power grid, and we need a rapid build-out to scale up clean energy capacity in the U.S. and prevent the worst impacts of climate change on people and birds. Our current electric grid was not designed for a clean energy future, so critical investments in infrastructure are urgently needed. The current processes for developing transmission take too long and do not always provide adequate environmental and cultural protections. Conservation organizations and clean energy developers must work together to improve the process. Collaborative planning efforts are needed to minimize the impacts of transmission construction and operation to biodiversity, while also speeding deployment of needed capacity additions that will enable 100% clean power.
Audubon understands the risks birds face from a rapid transmission build-out, but there are well-tested solutions that can be implemented to alleviate these. The alternative, where we don’t meet our clean energy goals, is a world where two-thirds of bird species in North America face devastating range loss and potential extinction. Because of this, Audubon supports the responsible build-out of transmission, and we will work to ensure it is done in a way that minimizes harm to birds while providing a path to a climate-stable future.
Birds and Transmission Report
In August 2023, we released the Birds and Transmission report, which outlines how the Audubon Network and partners can help ensure that we build the grid that birds need. The report includes the latest scientific research and provides a roadmap for Audubon’s strategy for supporting an equitable, bird-friendly, and environmentally sound transmission buildout.
Here are some key takeaways from the report:
The Need for Transmission Investment
Climate change and biodiversity loss are two of the most pressing issues of our time. We risk losing billions more birds if we don’t rapidly reduce the burning of fossil fuels and decarbonize the economy. To achieve a future where both birds and people thrive, the United States urgently needs more transmission lines that can carry clean energy. No matter how affordable and efficient clean energy becomes, it will not work unless we can connect it to an electricity grid that moves it from high wind and solar resource areas to population centers.
This build-out must be done rapidly and include both deployment of new and updates of existing transmission. Ideally, we want to optimize facility siting to locations of the highest potential for wind and solar energy production that also minimize unnecessary exposure to birds and their key habitats. To achieve both, we will need to identify the important places for transmission expansion, as well as understand the risks transmission has for birds and how to deploy bird-friendly solutions to abate these risks.
Science: Our Current Understanding of Birds and Transmission
In the last decade, scientific research has advanced our understanding of transmission impacts on birds. Thanks to a well-established and robust knowledge base, there are many ways to reduce risks and implement bird-friendly solutions.
Transmission line risks to birds fall into two main categories: collision, which involves flying into wires and largely affects strong fast fliers with poor or restricted vision, and habitat degradation, which involves the disruption or fragmentation of habitat that may cause displacement or result in predator attraction. Audubon recommends using ecological traits to identify species or places that would be vulnerable to population-level effects. This could inform a systematic analysis that provides more detailed guidance to apply at the level of the local transmission project.
Proactive solutions should be implemented to avoid as many negative impacts as possible or to help minimize any impacts that cannot be avoided. These solutions are assessed pre-construction and require collective planning across multiple invested parties and well-informed foresight. One of the first and most important steps is to plan potential transmission corridors so that they are developed within existing corridors, right of ways (ROWs), brownfields and other degraded lands, and other areas with co-locating opportunities. Audubon further recommends using existing corridors and lines more efficiently and making new developments scalable so that fewer corridors will be needed in the future.
Reactive solutions can be effective for mitigation of any remaining impacts after power line construction. These solutions focus on species’ morphological vulnerabilities to improve visibility, thereby reducing exposure. This can include increasing line visibility through line marking devices or illumination with UV lights that birds can readily detect and are known to reduce collisions.
How Audubon engages on transmission
Audubon is committed to the deployment of well-sited new transmission that helps us achieve our climate goals while creating a more bird-friendly grid that minimizes negative impacts to birds. Working with partners and our Network, staff are engaging with local transmission projects to ensure bird-friendly solutions and community needs are a part of the plan from the beginning.
Audubon also advocates for:
- Dramatically speeding up the pace of transmission deployment
- Shortening the timeline from planning to in-service
- Maximizing the effectiveness of the existing grid and use of existing rights of way
- Improving the transmission planning process
- Establishing a stronger transmission role for FERC
- Securing federal transmission policy reforms
- Preparing states for the magnitude of transmission deployment
- Promoting bird-friendly design and operation