MANITOWOC — The Manitowoc County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted against creating a moratorium on large wind turbines in the county.
The motion for the moratorium, which would have temporarily prevented construction of turbines with a capacity of more than 100 kilowatts, failed 14-8, with two supervisors absent and board chairman Paul Tittl abstaining because he owns stock in Broadwind Energy.
The ordinance was brought forward after the towns of Cooperstown, Mishicot and Two Creeks submitted petitions requesting the county enact a moratorium to allow time for the state Public Service Commission to establish statewide rules on the installation and use of wind energy systems or for a period of one year, whichever came first.
Town of Mishicot Board member Dean Anhalt said numerous residents have complained that wind turbines near their homes are affecting their well-being. Headaches, nausea, pressure in the ears and chest are some of the symptoms he said residents are experiencing.
“They’re worried about the health of themselves and their families,” he said.
Supervisor Paul Hansen said while he understands health concerns, he didn’t support the moratorium because he wants to see the scientific evidence about the effects of wind turbines to make a decision.
“There are health concerns for every type of energy we currently produce in this country,” he said. “There are concerns with coal plants. There is concern with gas and oil. There are nuclear concerns. We live on a planet where we make a judgment whether or not to accept that risk.”
Supervisor Kevin Behnke said he is in favor of the moratorium because it would prevent the county from having to redo its process for approving wind turbine construction in the future.
“The ordinance specifically only asks that we wait until the state comes up with their standards … because more than likely their standards are going to supersede any standards that we have in our current ordinance,” he said. “I’m not anti-wind.”
Kerry Trask, Manitowoc County Democratic Party chairman, spoke at the meeting, saying a moratorium would have sent the wrong message to businesses.
“This is an old issue, but I’m here tonight because I’m somewhat bewildered,” he said Monday. “Bewildered because we’re here at a time when we have a large number of our people who are underemployed or unemployed, a time when the economy remains slow. It does the wrong thing for the economic development of the county.”
What to expect when you're expecting wind turbines: Construction Phase Video, Rumford New York
“The project is on virgin ranch land, the road to it is an active earthquake fault and will need to be totally rebuilt so Shell can build a concrete plant on top of the hill and truck in literally thousands of loads of aggregate, supplies and windmill parts.
During construction, that road would be impassable to local traffic. Every trip from (town) to the bridge would take one hour instead of 10 minutes. It is highly unlikely Ferndale’s tourism business would survive the construction season, nor the houses and historic buildings the punishing vibrations from monster trucks.
In exchange, Shell promises a giant night-lit construction yard, white and red blinking lights atop a currently dark ridgetop, whirling blades in marbled murrelet and spotted owl habitat, an enormous noise footprint, power lines running through private property whose owners do not want electrical lines… ”
What a confounding country we are these days. We’ve got one set of folks denying climate change, evolution and the role of government, another demanding government job creation and the preservation of social programs, still others who’d hug a tree in lieu of any form of development, and that big exhausted bunch in the chewy center who truly and, perhaps, naively, believe there’s a middle ground to be found in most things. Well, maybe not climate change and evolution denial, but pretty much everything else.
Extremism is all the rage (emphasis on “rage”) and if you are to be thought of as something, you’re obligated to be that thing without nuance or flexibility. Environmental defender vs. job creator. Green thinker vs. technology warrior. Ecologically minded vs. economically minded. Whatever variation on the theme, the only commonality to be found is the vs.in between. The versus. The opposition. The either/or.
I don’t see it that way, the implacable either/or. Sometimes there is a middle ground that is often the most logical place to set up camp and make wise decisions.
For example, I clearly understand the need for jobs but don’t see the upside of decimating a 2000-acre redwood forest to create some for the wine industry, particularly when other options are available. (May we suggest a pinot with that redwood forest?).
We do need to wean ourselves from foreign oil but drilling (baby, drilling) the pristine, incomparable Alaskan wilderness seems shortsighted in the long run.
Blowing off mountaintops and polluting land and rivers downstream seems a self-sabotaging way to provide jobs and alternative energy sources.
And erecting 25 (potentially more) giant industrial wind turbines at the top of one of the most naturally beautiful areas of northern California to provide wind energy for parts down south seems a flouting of the “do no harm” philosophy of environmentalism.
But that’s what Shell Oil’s got planned for the tiny, bucolic Victorian village of Ferndale, Calif. Apparently, beyond all its many other virtues, Ferndale’s got “good wind.” Shell’s been up on Bear River Ridge quietly testing for the last several years and, by golly, damn fine wind up there! And with that revelation, in blows Big Oil to sell the citizens of Ferndale on the idea of Wind Energy with a capital W and that rhymes with pretty much nuthin’ and that stands for “Wait a damn minute!” To mix ditties, they plan to pave paradise and it ain’t just to put up a parking lot.
I’ve written about Ferndale before (Women Of the News: Ferndale’s Enterprising Editor, Caroline Titus). Ferndale’s main cachet is its tangible aura of untouched rural life; a small town with historical and beautifully preserved Victorians (the entire town is on the Historic Registry), verdant dairy farms stretching from road to ocean, Redwood covered mountains, crystalline creeks and rivers; rolling hills of wildlife and every imaginable ecosystem. It truly is a living postcard and that very quality is its visceral draw to the many citizens and tourists who abound.
Now picture this:
Looming large just above Ferndale’s rural charm and tranquility is a hulking line-up of 25 endlessly whirring industrial wind turbines forever blighting the natural landscape. Mix in almost a year of construction, with monster trucks trolling 5 mph through town day in and day out, homes and historic buildings marked for eminent domain consideration; roads, infrastructure, habitats and wildlife impacted, and… WAIT! What?!
Oh, but there’ll be some jobs, lots of post-contruction perks, a commerce bump, some landowners will profit from licensing, and it’s green, baby, green!!
Talk about a deal with the… Big Oil.
Let’s go back to the quibble in the middle. What if you are environmentally conscious and passionate to support green energy? Perhaps you’re someone focused on the importance of jobs and the spending flush industry will bring. Maybe you’re a preservationist who firmly believes damaging a natural environment is ecologically antithetic. What if you’re all of the above?
The Jobs/Commerce Contingent: a letter-writer to The Ferndale Enterprise (who charmingly included “buttinsky” in his signature) outlined what he felt were the weaknesses in the argument against, pushing the value of the hoped-for commerce and promised jobs (most temporary, a few more permanent), suggesting patience as information evolves. His take: one could “get used to” whatever inconvenience or landscape changes would be wrought. A feet-on-the-ground sort.
The Preservationist Contingent: local photographer, Dan Stubbs, Jr. opined the long-term impact: “Part of the beauty of this area is driving across Fernbridge and seeing the town nestled against the beautiful mountains. Placement of giant wind generators on the ridge would be an eyesore, discouraging tourism and affecting the economy of our picturesque Victorian village… I can see no benefit to the people of Ferndale, the Eel River Valley or Humboldt County… If (this project) is completed, the look of this beautiful valley will be forever changed. My only hope then may be that we have more of our foggy, overcast days to shield us from the unsightly wind generators looming over the valley.” Shangri-La sold out, as another townsperson agreed.
The Environmentalist Contingent: this well-intentioned group sees this project as a vital opportunity for Humboldt County to contribute to the alternative energy game, even if it is at Ferndale’s expense. One fuming commenter (appropriately named “Enraged Environmentalist”) wrote: “If doing my part meant putting up a 2MW wind turbine in my back yard, I would gladly do it. If Ferndale and the other NIMBY squeaky wheels get this plan scuttled, I will personally boycott the town’s business for the remainder of my days, and encourage everyone else I know to do so as well… I did not think it was possible for me to be so angry at a small town in Humboldt County.” Take that, you, you… Ferndale!
The Nature Lover/Get Real Contingent: Ferndale biologist, herpetologist and author, Ellin Beltz, contributed the following: “The project is on virgin ranch land, the road to it is an active earthquake fault and will need to be totally rebuilt so Shell can build a concrete plant on top of the hill and truck in literally thousands of loads of aggregate, supplies and windmill parts. During construction, that road would be impassable to local traffic. Every trip from (town) to the bridge would take one hour instead of 10 minutes. It is highly unlikely Ferndale’s tourism business would survive the construction season, nor the houses and historic buildings the punishing vibrations from monster trucks. In exchange, Shell promises a giant night-lit construction yard, white and red blinking lights atop a currently dark ridgetop, whirling blades in marbled murrelet and spotted owl habitat, an enormous noise footprint, power lines running through private property whose owners do not want electrical lines… ”
Get the dilemma?
NIMBYism is the default invective hurled these days when anyone raises valid questions about what’s being sold, but name-calling and threatened boycotts are cheap shots when the stakes are so high. After all, just how GREEN is this technology really? Who amongst us is sufficiently schooled on the true efficiency and safety of giant wind turbines? I’ve seen them stretched across dry, treeless land abutting freeways and thought, “now there’s a good use of unpopulated, barren landscape,” but frankly, I don’t know much about them. Recently I was sent a link to a new documentary currently winning awards and readying for distribution with First Run Features – Windfall, the Movie – and after viewing the trailer and reading the blog at their site, I had the exact questions one of those interviewed in the film ominously suggested be asked. And, indeed, some ominous information exists to be very seriously considered. The documentation is plentiful, generally dissuading and very contradictory. Not exactly a convincing foundation upon which to make irrevocable decisions that alter the landscape and character of an entire region!
Enraged Environmentalist stated: “The entire planet is involved in a war with itself right now. We have two choices: Drastically change our way of life, or take responsibility and deal with the consequences. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fun, but it’s the only choice.”
I agree, EE, but come to a different conclusion.
We are stewards of this land we live on. Our immediate concerns and needs do engage our moment in time, but in realistically and ethically seeking solutions we cannot eschew all responsibility to future generations. How much of our natural planet do we preserve for them? How much of it do we sacrifice for jobs, money and new technology, green or otherwise? As a concerned environmentalist, a property owner who loves the area, and a parent who hopes my son’s grandchildren can still find natural, unspoiled, unindustrialized rural land to enjoy long after we’re gone, I personally cannot support the Shell Oil wind turbine project in Ferndale.
What I can support is re-framing the debate as a wake-up call for the community; one that inspires both a commitment to preserve the natural landscape of the area, as well as focuses new energy on bringing in jobs and needed commerce; supporting local merchants, promoting tourism, and becoming as environmentally proactive as possible. The vibrancy, passion and energy exhibited in this debate can and should be redirected toward those goals.
FEDERAL GUIDELINES FAIL TO MAKE WIND POWER BIRD-SMART, BREAK FEDERAL LAWS, AND RELY ON UNLIKELY VOLUNTARY COMPLIANCE
(Washington, D.C., September 20, 2011) The Department of the Interior (DOI) has released a revised, third version of its voluntary wind development siting and operational guidelines that fails to ensure that bird deaths at wind farms are minimized, says American Bird Conservancy, the nation’s leading bird conservation organization.
Furthermore, the public has been given only ten days to comment. The final opportunity for the public to discuss these guidelines with DOI will be at a federal advisory committee meeting today and tomorrow.
“ABC is very much pro wind energy. America has the potential to create a truly green energy source that does not unduly harm birds, but the Department of the Interior is squandering the opportunity to be ‘smart from the start’,” said Kelly Fuller, Wind Campaign Coordinator for American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the nation’s leading bird conservation organization. “The latest draft of the wind guidelines is not only voluntary, making industry compliance unlikely, but also offers assurances that wind companies won’t be prosecuted for illegally killing federally protected birds such as Bald and Golden Eagles. These guidelines set a dangerous precedent for other energy industries to seek the same freedom to break America’s wildlife protection laws without repercussions,” said Fuller.
“Astonishingly, the current draft of the guidelines allows wind power companies to unilaterally determine whether they are in compliance with the ’guidelines’ and, on that basis, to immunize themselves from any prosecution under federal wildlife protection statutes regardless of how many eagles, hawks, warblers, or other protected species they wind up taking. This would be unfathomable as applied to any other energy sector or, for that matter, any other regulatory sphere. This goes way beyond merely being bad policy; it is a flagrant violation of the protective schemes adopted in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act,” said Eric Glitzenstein, a Founding Partner at Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal, a Washington, D.C. based public-interest law firm.
One wind farm in California is already estimated to have killed over 2,000 eagles in what would appear to be significant violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Yet the wind company has yet to be prosecuted or even charged, and has only implemented meaningful operational changes in recent years following legal action taken not by the federal government, but by environmental groups.
This version of the wind industry guidelines was issued on September 13, 2011. The Department of the Interior will accept comments on the proposal until September 23, 2011.
“Giving a mere ten days to look over this 130-page package makes it almost impossible for the public to provide a meaningful response,” Fuller said.
Recommendations on wind energy were developed over a two-year period by an industry-dominated, 22-member Federal Advisory Committee and forwarded to the Secretary of the Interior in March 2010. Over the next year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists made a series of changes to those recommendations to improve protection for birds. Those revised guidelines were then published for public comment in February 2011. An overwhelming number of the comments called for the guidelines to be strengthened, not weakened. The guidelines also underwent scientific peer review.
“Right now we have a chance to get wind power right from the start – with little added costs. But if we push these voluntary guidelines forward without making them bird-smart to protect the environment, it may be our children who may ultimately regret our hasty decisions,” said Fuller.
A second set of proposed guidelines was then issued by DOI on July 12, 2011, but rather than strengthening the initial draft, it removed many key bird protection elements, reversing recommendations from professional DOI wildlife staff and adding unrealistic wind project approval deadlines that ABC concludes would lead to “rubber-stamping” of wind development.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that in 2009, the wind industry was killing about 440,000 birds per year, yet has ignored its own estimate. With the Federal Government targeting a 12-fold increase in wind generated electricity by the year 2030, annual bird mortality is expected to increase into the millions absent meaningful changes in the industry. Species of conservation concern appear to be particularly at risk including the Golden Eagle, Greater Sage-Grouse and the endangered Whooping Crane.
More than 60 groups and over 20,000 individuals organized by ABC have called for mandatory standards and bird-smart principles in the siting and operation of wind farms. The coalition represents a broad cross-section of respected national and local groups, as well as scientists, bird lovers, conservationists, and other concerned citizens.
Newt Gingrich, who supports a tax credit for wind energy, signing a turbine blade in Iowa.
In The New York Times on Thursday, John M. Broder writes about a blood sport that has become quite popular among the field of Republican presidential candidates: attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet the candidates recently found time to rally behind clean wind energy, a topic some voters identify with a somewhat more liberal agenda.
At the Saturday straw poll in Iowa, the G.O.P. contenders Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Thaddeus McCotter autographed a giant 130-foot wind turbine blade to show their support for Iowa’s burgeoning wind industry as a source of home-grown job creation.
TPI Composites, based in Newton, Iowa, manufactured the blade and currently employs 700 workers at a former Maytag plant, according to its chief executive, Steve Lockard. The American Wind Energy Association, a trade association and lobbying group, sponsored the event on Saturday.
Michele Bachman, the top vote-getter in the straw poll, was not present at the signing, although according to Peter Kelley, the wind energy association’s vice president for public affairs, her staff members had conveyed her interest in attending.
Texas is the leading state in installed wind capacity with 10,085 megawatts, while Iowa is second with 3,675 megawatts, accounting for almost 20 percent of the state’s electricity generation in the first quarter of 2011.
Over 200 companies are now involved in Iowa’s wind industry. Since the state adopted a renewable energy standard in 1983, the industry has generated almost $5 billion in investment, according to estimates from the wind energy association.
Iowa’s wind generation capacity will soon get a boost when the MidAmerican Energy Company, one of the country’s largest wind project developers, completes the 444-megawatt Rolling Hills site this year in southwestern Iowa.
But while Mr. Lockard expects demand for his wind turbines to remain strong through 2012, he expressed concern during Saturday’s event about 2013 and beyond because of the impending expiration of the so-called production tax credit. This incentive provides a per-kilowatt-hour tax credit for companies generating electricity from renewable sources.
The credit has faced expiration before but has then been renewed and expanded several times since its enactment in 1992 as part of the Energy Policy Act. In 2009, the Recovery Act sweetened the incentive by allowing developers to receive a grant from the Treasury Department in lieu of the tax credit, meaning the government would finance 30 percent of the project cost.
According to Mr. Kelley of the wind energy association, the production tax credit has been the single most important piece of legislation allowing wind to compete with other sources of energy like coal.
At Saturday’s event, Mr. Pawlenty, who has since withdrawn from the race, and Mr. Gingrich spoke in favor of extending tax incentives in the form of production tax credits. Where the other candidates stand on the issue is less clear as the topic was not discussed during the debate preceding the straw poll .
“Uncertainty over whether the P.T.C. will be extended has already caused layoffs and bankruptcies in the wind energy supply chain,” Mr. Kelley said. Ensuring that the credit is renewed “will be our top legislative priority in Congress this session,” he said.
"Dead bats are turning up beneath wind turbines all over the world. Bat fatalities have now been documented at nearly every wind facility in North America where adequate surveys for bats have been conducted, and several of these sites are estimated to cause the deaths of thousands of bats per year.'
As California attempts to divorce itself from fossil-fueled electricity, it may be trading one environmental sin for another — although you don’t hear state officials admitting it.
Wind power is the fastest growing component in the state’s green energy portfolio, but wildlife advocates say the marriage has an unintended consequence: dead birds, including protected species of eagles, hawks and owls.
“The cumulative impacts are huge,” said Shawn Smallwood, one of the few recognized experts studying the impact of wind farms on migratory birds. “It is not inconceivable to me that we could reduce golden eagle populations by a great deal, if not wipe them out.”
California supports roughly 2,500 golden eagles. The state’s largest wind farms kill, on average, more than 80 eagles per year. But the state is set to triple wind capacity in the coming years as it tries to become the first state in the nation to generate 33 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2020.
“We would like to have no bird deaths and no bird injuries. But, once again, we have to balance all the needs of society. All the people who want to flip their switch and have electricity in their homes,” said Lorelei Oviatt, Kern County planning commissioner.
Kern County has identified some 225,000 acres just north of Los Angeles as a prime wind resource area. Unfortunately, the area’s rolling hills and mountains are prime hunting grounds for raptors and a layover spot for migratory birds traveling between Canada and Mexico. The updrafts enjoyed by birds of prey are ideal for generating power.
“I’m not against wind power — it is a viable form of energy generation — but it needs to be developed more carefully,” Smallwood said.
Case in point: In the Bay Area, when activists in the 1980s demanded a cleaner planet, the state responded with the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area. The state-approved wind farm, built with federal tax credits, kills 4,700 birds annually, including 1,300 raptors, among them 70 golden eagles, according to biological reports generated on behalf of the owners.
Smallwood said replacing the small, older turbines with larger blades has cut some species fatalities roughly in half.
Oviatt said Kern County is trying to learn from Altamont’s mistakes.
“We’re requiring full environmental impact reports, which take at least 12 to 18 months,” Oviatt said. “Can I promise that a bird will never be injured or killed? I can’t. But again, we have this tradeoff in society, between the things we need to function as an economy and the fact that we wanna make sure we have an environment for future generations.”
Pine Tree is one of the wind farms in Kern County and is operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. According to an internal DWP bird and bat mortality report for the year ending June 2010, bird fatality rates were “relatively high” at Pine Tree compared to 45 other wind facilities nationwide. The facility’s annual death rate per turbine is three times higher for golden eagles than at Altamont.
“Politics plays a huge role here,” Smallwood said. “Our leaders want this power source so they’re giving, for a time being, a pass to the wind industry. If you or I killed an eagle, we’re looking at major consequences.”
Smallwood and others say it is almost inconceivable the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, hasn’t acted.
“There’s a big, big hypocrisy here,” Sue Hammer of Tehachapi Wildlife Rehab in Kern County said. “If I shoot an eagle, it’s a $10,000 fine and/or a vacation of one to five years in a federal pen of my choice.”
She’s not far off from the reality.
In 2009, Exxon pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of about 85 migratory birds in five states that came into contact with crude oil in uncovered waste tanks. The fine for this was $600,000.
Likewise, PacifiCorp, an Oregon utility, owed $10.5 million in fines, restitution and improvements to their equipment after 232 eagles were killed by running into power lines in Wyoming.
And in 2005, the owner of a fish hatchery was ordered to serve six months in a federal halfway house and pay a $65,000 fine for shooting an eagle that was feeding at his uncovered hatchery.
Wind power in the U.S. generates 41,400 megawatts of electricity. California represents just a fraction of that total, suggesting the number of raptor kills is considerably higher nationwide. Yet according to records, USFWS has not prosecuted a single company for violating one of the many statutes protecting threatened and endangered birds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will host a Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee meeting via teleconference and webcast on August 23. This meeting is open to the public, but registration is required. The meeting will take place on August 23, from 1 to 5 p.m. Eastern Time. If you are a member of the public wishing to participate in the meeting via telephone or webcast, you must register online by August 16, 2011.
Imagine the U.S. government had asked the oil industry to observe “voluntary” environmental guidelines to protect wildlife — and then imagine that the oil companies were so upset by how burdensome these “voluntary” guidelines were that they were allowed to substantially rewrite them. Of course, this is the kind of dystopian conspiracy that many people imagine already occurs when commercial interests collide with conservation and ecology. What’s remarkable though, is that this is precisely what the U.S. government is allowing to happen with the wind power industry, and not the oil companies — or any other fossil fuel utility.
Last week saw public comments close on the debate over the Department of the Interior and the “voluntary” regulation of Big Wind. Why does Big Wind need regulation? Because wind turbines are highly effective bird-killing machines: stick a 4,000-acre wind farm in the wrong spot and it’s an ecosystem-destroying splat fest.
If there is a capital of wind-turbine avicide, the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in central California might well be it. Between 1998 and 2001, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory tried to quantify the impact of this vast wind farm, which extends over 50,000 acres, on bird life. It concluded that up to 4,300 birds were killed each year, including 27 to 34 golden eagles. A later, more extensive study of the farm, while noting the uncertainties in measuring bird kills, postulated even higher numbers.
The problem is not just collision — when you add in factors like habitat loss and fragmentation, barrier effects (such as a farm disrupting local or migratory flight paths) and noise, the annual tally of bird deaths caused by wind power is estimated at 440,000 a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But while fossil fuel utility companies are subjected to mandatory conservation rules and are aggressively prosecuted for killing protected species, Big Wind just has to look like it’s trying to be bird-friendly. As the Wildlife Service notes, following the voluntary guidelines will be “taken as evidence of due care,” and even if legally protected species are killed, “caring” means the companies may still be able to dodge the massive fines that have been imposed on careless oil and coal companies.
As Robert Bryce, energy journalist and author of “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future,” told me, “Violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — which, by the way, is one of the oldest wildlife protection laws in America – have long been prosecuted without regard for whether the bird kills in question were intentional or not. Imagine if the U.S. Justice Department suddenly decided that enforcement and compliance with federal laws on cocaine trafficking were now to be considered ‘voluntary.’”
Many bird conservation groups are, not surprisingly, furious over this regulatory farce: It’s not just that they believe Big Wind should be subjected to mandatory regulation like every other utility, it’s that Big Wind should not get to write its own regulations.
As Kelly Fuller, an American Bird Conservancy expert on wind power, explained, the first set of “voluntary guidelines” was gutted to take out many of the specific proposal that would actually protect birds. “It is of real concern to the American Bird Conservancy that the earlier draft, written by experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service, has had most of its content replaced with material that came from an industry-dominated panel,” she said. “No other energy sector is allowed to write its own regulations — at least not without people getting upset when they find out about it.”
Despite this, some on the left have tried to portray the outrage as a Republican plot against renewable energy. Media Matters recently claimed that while there have been “a number of wildlife deaths … wind turbines provide more benefit to the environment than they do harm to wildlife.”
When I asked Fuller whether the American Bird Conservancy considered itself part of a Republican smear operation, she stressed that the organization was nonpartisan, and that other conservation and scientific groups that favor mandatory standards for wind power, such as the American Birding Association and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, were hardly political fronts.
Of course, the threat to wildlife from wind power does overlap with intense criticism of wind as a massively inefficient energy source (because it needs to be backed by conventional power and so forth), so it’s hardly surprising that Republicans are quick to accuse wind power advocates of “do as I say, not as I do,” hypocrisy; but that shouldn’t blind the public to a rather more basic economic truth: Wind power is not about mom-and-pop-shop environmentalists sticking up a couple of turbines on a mountaintop, it’s about massive companies like BP Alternative Energy building vast wind farms. When it comes to environmental impact, why should BP’s alternative energy division be held to lesser standards than BP’s petroleum division?
What’s good for the goose is good for everyone; namely, that the law should be applied equally.
Spinning blades and fluttering wings are clashing more frequently as greater numbers of wind turbines are installed throughout the United States and the world. The generators can top 400 feet tall, have blades turning at 160 miles per hour and can number in the dozens over hundreds of acres. They are part of America’s expanding renewable energy portfolio.
But the same breezes that push the blades are the playground of hundreds of species of birds and bats, and to them, the turbines are giant horizontal blenders.
With wind being one of the fastest-growing energy sources in the world, turbines are generating electricity along with friction between different environmental interests as advocates seek a compromise between the demand for clean renewable energy and the safety of animals.
Wind provides 198 gigawatts of electricity worldwide, with 39 GW of new capacity added just last year, according to the Renewables 2011 Global Status Report (GSR) by REN21, an international renewable energy proponent. “Commercial wind power now operates in at least 83 countries, up from just a handful of countries in the 1990s,” said Janet Sawin, research director and lead author of the GSR, in an email.
The report notes that for the first time, wind power is growing more in developing countries than industrialized nations, led by emerging markets like China, which accounted for half of the global capacity increase last year. In addition, the European Wind Energy Association projects that wind energy employment will double by 2020 in the European Union.
However, the rapid growth and expansion of wind farms has had an increasingly significant effect on birds and bats, especially since, according to the GSR, the average wind turbine size has increased. The American Bird Conservancy (ABC), an avian conservation group, observes that upward of 14 birds per megawatt of wind energy are killed each year, numbering more than 440,000. The organization projects the number will rise substantially as wind energy production increases.
Killing mechanisms are different
Yet it’s hard to determine how bird populations will respond to turbines. “It’s very difficult to say what the impact on birds is … particularly migratory birds,” said David Cottingham, senior adviser to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Thus, the economic and environmental fallout may not be seen right away, said Cottingham.
According to FWS, birds are killed when they collide directly with turbine blades. Statistics show more birds are killed by cats and windows, to the tune of hundreds of millions. But turbines pose a unique threat to all birds, including endangered species, like whooping cranes, and raptors, like eagles, hawks and falcons.
Electrical infrastructure around turbines, like power lines, also poses hazards to birds, said FWS in a report on bird mortality.
Bats, on the other hand, face different problems around wind farms. “Many more bats than birds are killed by wind turbines, and they are killed in two ways: simply by being hit by the blades, and some are killed by pressure changes due to the sweep of the blades without even being hit,” said John Whitaker Jr., a professor of biology and director of the Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation at Indiana State University, in an email.
Because bats use sound to navigate and can detect moving objects, like insects, exceptionally well, many are better able than birds to avoid striking the blades. However, they can’t detect the invisible swath of low pressure left behind turning blades. Bats then fly into this area, and their internal airways rapidly expand, causing internal bleeding.
This phenomenon, known as barotrauma, accounts for more than half of all turbine-related fatalities in bats, according to a 2008 paper in the journal Current Biology.
The die-off is troubling because bat populations are already under stress from white nose syndrome, a spreading epidemic fungal infection that kills more than a million bats annually. This is exacerbated by bats’ slow reproductive rate and decades-long life expectancy, meaning populations are slow to recover.
“The hibernating bats are being killed by white nose syndrome, whereas it is the migratory bats — red, hoary and silver-haired bats — that are being killed by wind farms,” said Whitaker. “The kill of these bats is going to be huge.”
Bat die-off costly to farmers
Bat deaths also carry substantial economic consequences. Because of their voracious appetite for insects, bats are excellent for natural pest control. A paper published in the journal Science in March said bats typically save farmers $74 per acre, and the study projects that bat deaths can cost $3.7 billion annually in crop losses.
The solutions, according to FWS, are planning, mitigation and offsets. “We’re trying to figure out how to work with industry so you can have both renewable energy and do it in a way to protect birds, particularly those birds that are endangered species,” said Jerome Ford, director for the migratory birds program at FWS.
Ford said substantial conflicts can be avoided if wind farms are placed away from flying animals by studying wind and migration patterns.
Active deterrence, using tools like radar, is also being studied, but it can create other potential issues. “You want the birds to avoid the area to avoid injury, but you don’t want them to avoid the areas if it leads to habitat fragmentation,” said Cottingham. The FWS is also investigating vertical axis turbines, which take up less airspace and are potentially less harmful to birds and bats.
Cottingham and Ford did acknowledge that despite their best efforts, wildlife will still be at risk, including endangered species. The FWS has allowed wind energy companies to “take” a certain number of endangered animals without fines or penalties, provided they offset the harm with habitat restoration. “Take” is defined as maiming or killing under the Endangered Species Act.
Feathers fly over new guidelines
Last month, FWS released another draft of its wind energy guidelines. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a wind industry advocacy group, expressed approval for the new document. Tom Vinson, AWEA’s senior director of federal regulatory affairs, described it as an “extraordinary achievement.”
The ABC, on the other hand, was aghast. The revised guidelines removed much of the previous language about protecting birds as well as other suggested measures to protect wildlife, and what little remained is voluntary, said Bob Johns, director of public relations for the ABC.
“What’s difficult to overlook is the number of times the word ‘should’ is used,” said Johns. “There is no reference to ‘must’ and ‘shall.’”
However, the ABC is still in favor of wind power. “We are a supporter of wind,” said Johns. “We think it has the potential to be very green. All we’re saying is do it right. It’s not hard to do. There are a limited number of sites where [harm to wildlife] would be an issue.”
Through working with the government and industry groups, the ABC hopes it is not just tilting at windmills, but that eventually there will be binding regulations to protect bald eagles and little brown bats while reducing American dependence on fossil fuels.