21 November 2006
GPO Box 716
HOBART Tas 7001
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
In the latest edition of Wilderness News (No 170) Imogen Zethoven writes on Page 14 that she ‘prefers travelling through northern Germany’ compared with France: ‘there the countryside is dotted with elegant windfarms. It was exhilarating to see a picture of the future before my eyes …’
I do not take issue with Imogen Zethoven’s comments relating to nuclear energy. My expertise lies with ornithology, not nuclear physics. However, I do take issue with her on two grounds ““ landscape degradation and wildlife protection ““ both of which must be of direct concern to the Wilderness Society. Of course she has every right to be enthusiastic about wind farms, but the expression of these views seems to be more appropriate to the Australian Wind Energy Association newsletter rather than Wilderness News. In my view there is nothing more antithetic to landscape values than wind farms, a view shared by thousands of European protestors. Meanwhile avaricious landowners, usually living well away from these installations, clamour to reap the available harvest of Euros while destroying ancient wild vistas. Threatened destruction of wilderness values features strongly as a reason to reject many proposed developments in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland ““ proposals which have generated huge international concern. References to landscape character and quality, scenic viewpoints, visual amenity, landscape driven tourism ““ these are terms appearing regularly in reports from planning authorities in Scotland as reasons for rejection. There are, of course, the usual wildlife conservation reasons ““ threats to migrant raptors and migrating geese from the sub-Arctic. There is increasing scepticism at the ever-optimistic, and often untested assumptions of collision avoidance proffered by industry sponsored consultants.
Amusing though it may be on one level, how ironic it is that the cartoon on Page 15 of a radiation mutated pair of Orange-bellied Parrots ignores the real threat which will emerge if ever the Heemskirk wind farm in Western Tasmania gets resurrected. The proposal has now been withdrawn, but what is amazing is that the developer was even prepared to consider a site through which 100% of the world population of Orange-bellied Parrots passes on migration. The proposal was withdrawn on economic, not environmental grounds. No surprises there of course.
Again, looking closer to home, let’s examine the price of ‘elegance’ in Tasmania. Woolnorth in the extreme north west is the only large wind farm operating in Tasmania so far. Though small by world standards, it has become notorious even in its infancy. The tally from August 02 to October 06 is 34 Goulds Wattle Bats confirmed dead and, as with small birds, a blade strike plus wind carry means that many corpses will never be found. In any case less than one third of the turbines are monitored. Birds injured by turbulence/throw down may be able to move out of monitored areas prior to death or be removed by carnivorous scavengers. Underestimation of mortality is inevitable. In the case of one Spanish wind farm appallingly sited in a migration corridor, employees are known to have buried corpses to ensure that the mortalities don’t get reported at all. At Woolnorth (where the monitoring is excellent even if limited) the mortalities include birds usually credited with huge aerial agility (5 Needletail Swifts killed) but tough luck if they hunt at the lethal altitude. A variety of small land birds and some sea bird species are also killed regularly. Particularly disturbing are the acknowledged deaths of 5 Wedge-tailed Eagles. By the time some recently discovered body parts are reassembled the toll may rise to 9. The future of this endangered sub-species is looking increasingly bleak in the north west. It is developing into a classic population sink ““ adults get shredded, wandering juveniles move in and are killed in turn. Not that eagle deaths are unique to Tasmania ““ the Starfish wind farm in South Australia also has its tally.
Public interest in large birds of prey works to the detriment of other species, fatalities of which fail to grab media attention. Meanwhile these landscape-dominating structures, typically 150m tall with whirling blades 30-50m or more in length with blade-tip speeds often in excess of 300km per hour continue with their destruction. Even though the Heemskirk proposal has been withdrawn, there are other threats. The proposed Musselroe Wind Farm, close to the coast in NE Tasmania , is one. Some planned turbine sites are interposed between coastal lagoons and internal lagoons. Migrant waders frequently cross the site to exploit food resources as various lagoons dry out sequentially. The only difference between Musselroe and Woolnorth is, that except for the presence of Wedge-tailed Eagles and Sea Eagles at both sites, the suite of species will be different and mortalities in future are likely to include species associated with wetlands ““ Swans, Cape Barren Geese, Grebe and a variety of duck species as well as both migrant and resident waders.
Taking a world view, raptor deaths at wind farms are commonplace and often unsustainable. Over the past twenty years the world’s largest wind farm, Altamont Pass California, has caused bird deaths by the thousands. The annual toll of fully protected Golden Eagles alone is over 100. Bat deaths in the USA are also enormous. A well-documented mortality statistic (provided by the operators) is that in ten weeks in 2003 the Backbone Mountain Wind Farm in West Virginia killed at least 400 bats. Research in Germany where ‘elegant’ wind farms are responsible for high numbers of bat mortalities there has been some research as to why some corpses have been found with no external injuries. Although in Tasmania, pathology reports typically contain descriptions such as ‘severe crushing’, ‘large laceration, ‘open chest cavity, ‘severe contusion’ and so on, at least one bird ““ a Short-tailed Shearwater, was in ‘good physical condition externally’ but with internal haemorrhages. It has been suggested that the high speeds and air turbulence at the rotor point cause negative pressure which causes veins to burst within bats. Perhaps this type of trauma could apply to birds. However, the association between bats and turbines, often fatal, is at present too speculative to go into here.
In economic terms, the performance of German wind farms is nothing to get excited about. With roughly a third of the world’s capacity the German experience is that most of the installed capacity has to be ‘shadowed’ by old-fashioned coal-fired power stations ready to cut in to cover demand. The average output from the largest German operator, owning 44% of capacity is around 11%. It is never 100% and 80% is a rare best. An article on the German experience (Financial Review November 04) concludes that given wind power unreliability and the need for inefficient back-up, the German Government (by way of subsidy of course) is chucking money away. So the ‘elegant wind farms’ of Germany don’t seem set to save the world.
It may be the time to consider how wind farms fit in with the values which the Wilderness Society represents. If the Society is prepared to go through such a prolonged and worthy fight to save the forests, with all the financial and emotional costs involved, it would be consistent to regard wind farm development with the same scepticism with which it regards the wood chip industry. Both are potent adversaries to the values which I hope we share.
Australian Wader Study Group