Wind energy, like other renewable energy sources, has the potential to make a major contribution to achieving the international targets for reducing CO2 emissions. It is of course important for the development of these energy sources to be as sustainable as possible in all respects, and for unnecessary and significant damage to nature to be avoided. Wind turbines could pose a hazard in certain situations for aerial wildlife (due to collisions, habitat loss, etc.). A growing number of wind turbines can create extra pressure in addition to existing sources of negative impacts such as high-voltage power lines, traffic, damage to nature reserves, etc. In a densely populated region like Flanders, this can further reduce the suitability for ecological functions. Despite all the studies and any possible mitigating measures, the choice of location (‘macro-siting’ at a strategic level) is still the main method for reducing the impact. This should therefore be the first phase in the search for new wind turbine locations, with important breeding, stopover, resting and migrating sites of birds and bats being avoided as much as possible in the first instance.
In 2000, a project commissioned by the Flemish government (Flemish Energy Agency) was started in INBO to build up the necessary policy expertise on the interactions between wind turbines and birds in Flanders. In addition to the provision of advice on projects and plans and the compilation of a policy-supporting bird atlas (Everaert et al. 2003), research was also carried out at some existing wind farms on the effects on birds (e.g. Everaert 2008). Because of the strong demand for an update of the policy-supporting bird atlas of 2003, a comprehensive decision-making tool on the siting of wind turbines in Flanders and the possible effects on birds and bats (Everaert et al., 2011) has been available since October 2011. In addition, the bird atlas from 2003 (via the FGIA geographical information centre) has been replaced by the ‘Flemish bird/wind turbines risk atlas’. The decision-making tool – both the report itself (Everaert et al. 2011) and the associated bird/wind turbines risk atlas – is dynamic. The intention is to perform updates at certain intervals. The latest version of the risk atlas is always available as a web application at an INBO geographical information centre. The risk atlas remains a starting point in the analysis and assessment of planned wind turbines. No risk class is automatically excluded for the siting of turbines. Detailed research, and if necessary the application of mitigating or compensatory measures, may mean that wind turbines can eventually be sited in certain zones of risk areas. The decision-making tool contains information and recommendations about the possible impacts, and above all makes it clear what steps are needed when examining planned projects and plans. The necessary procedure for obtaining a licence will now be clearer for both the government and the wind power sector and other stakeholders. If all the recommendations of the instrument are properly implemented (e.g. improved strategic planning), the introduction of wind turbines in Flanders should also proceed more smoothly. Additionally, information is available in the instrument on the potential risks to bats in Flanders; for the time being, this information is non-map-based.