Why the future of wind farms could hinge on owl wings

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Why the Future of Wind Farms Could Hinge on Owl Wings

One of the primary complaints from opponents of wind power is the noise turbines produce.

Another complaint is they kill birds, although researchers say they're probably responsible for a tiny fraction of the bird deaths existing cell towers and cats cause.

But there's reason to believe birds could hold the key to solving wind power's problems. Well, one type of bird in particular.

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Why the future of wind farms could hinge on owl wings
A Snowy Owl sits in its enclosure in the amusement park Geiselwind, southern Germany Thursday April 4, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa,Karl-Josef Hildenbrand)
This October 2014 photo shows an owl perched on the arm of a visitor at Fukuro no Mise, which means Shop of Owls, in Tokyo. The cafe allows visitors to hold and interact with owls. It’s one of a number of cafes in Japan where you can spend time with animals ranging from rabbits to goats. (AP Photo/Linda Lombardi)
A Burrowing owls yawns as it sits outside its hole in a public park in Cooper City, Fla. Monday, May 20, 2013 during a rain fall. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
A snowy owl squints in the sun at the zoo in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on a spring Wednesday, May 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
In this Wednesday, June 3, 2015 photo, an owl looks on while perching on the branch of a tree in the forest near the village of Kuleshi, north-west of capital Minsk, Belarus. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
An owl wakes up in their cage on a sunny spring day in a park in Essen, western Germany, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
An owl looks into the camera from its cage on a sunny spring day in a park in Essen, western Germany, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2014 file photo, a snowy owl rests on a ledge of a building in Washington. Reports from tens of thousands of bird-counting volunteers show a southern invasion of Arctic-dwelling snowy owls has spread to 25 states, and frigid cold is causing unusual movements of waterfowl. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
A snowy owl sits in its compound at the zoological garden during low temperatures in Hof, southern Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/dpa, David Ebener)
Two young Snowy Owls sit next to each other at Hannover Zoo in Hannover, Germany, Friday July 12, 2013. (AP Photo/dpa,Jochen Luebke)
Marge Gibson holds Dumpy the owl on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 at Raptors Education Group in Antigo, Wis. He's blind and has been there for over 20 years, helping them educate people about birds. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)
Elton, an eight-week old Spectacled Owl, (Pulsatrix perspicillata) looks out as he is weighed at London Zoo, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. Zookeepers are grabbing their scales and reaching for the tape measures, as they prepare to monitor every animal at ZSL London Zoo’s annual weigh-in. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
A ten weeks old female Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa), right, sits behind her mother in its enclosure at Berlin Zoo in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, July 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)
A great gray owl watches out of the dark into the sun on a warm spring Thursday, March 24, 2011, in a park in Essen, Germany. Germany enjoys the arriving of spring with blue sky and temperatures up to 20 degrees Celsius. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
A great gray owl screws his head at the zoo in Muenster, Germany, Monday, Dec. 6, 2010. Winter has arrived in Germany with ice and snow all over the country. Weather forecast predicts changing temperatures with freezing rain and dangerous icing. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
A two-week-old Malay fish owl waits to be fed at the Jurong Bird Park on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010, at the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. This owl was born and bred in the park as part of efforts in its commitment to wildlife conservation. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) sleeps on a cold day at the zoo in Wuppertal, Germany, Wednesday, April 16, 2008. Nature should wake up from its winter sleep at the weekend, when temperatures are expected around 20 degrees Celsius (68Fahrenheit). (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Little owl at Oltremare amusement park in Riccione , Italy. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Two spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata) chicks, one born in March and the other in April this year, perch together at the Berlin Zoo on Tuesday, May 31, 2005. The gender of the birds is not yet known because owls show no physical indication of their sex. A DNA test will eventually be done to determine the genders. (AP Photo/Kristy May)
The only member of Sarajevo's Zoo, a one-year-old owl, stares from its cage, March 18, 1998. A new campaign is under way to resurrect what for 35 years was Bosnia's only zoo, closed since 1992 when it became a deadly front line. None of 124 kinds of animals the zoo housed a few yers ago survived the Bosnian war. (AP Photo/Hidajet Delic)
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With a rig of highly sensitive microphones, the BBC, in its "Unexpected Wilderness," demonstrated just how quiet owls can be, compared to other birds.

Now, researchers say owls' unique aerodynamic wing design has yielded a material that could help make quieter wind turbines -- and quieter planes for that matter.

Lead researcher Nigel Peake explains, "The structure of an owl's wing serves to reduce noise by smoothing the passage of air as it passes over the wing -- scattering the sound so their prey can't hear them coming."

The researchers said their final design could reduce wind turbine noise by 10 decibels, which would bring the average noise produced down to 30 decibels at 300 meters -- that's the closest wind turbines usually get to residential areas. That's basically imperceptible.

Even more promising, the researchers found using patterning that resembled wedding-veil material reduced noise by 30 decibels, although they say that material isn't suitable for turbine design.

And while there isn't peer-reviewed evidence that the noise wind farms produce is substantially louder than, well, the wind itself, it has been a sticking point for opponents, something quieter turbines could brush aside.

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