Don Brunell for The Columbian
There are many questions about Initiative 937, the measure on the fall ballot that would require utilities to get 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010.
Now, the Audubon Society is adding to those concerns.
Because I-937 excludes hydropower, Washington’s most affordable and successful form of renewable energy, I-937 is known as the “wind power initiative.” But because Washington state has few sites with the open space and constant winds needed for wind farms, there’s real doubt wind power can produce enough electricity to reach I-937’s mandate.
In the latest issue of its magazine, the Audubon Society raises another concern that could further restrict wind farm development: Protecting wildlife.
It is well known that wind turbines can be devastating to birds and bats. The infamous Altamont wind farm in California is a prime example. Each of Altamont’s 5,000 wind turbines produces enough electricity to serve 20 homes. But the facility, which admittedly has older, more lethal wind turbines, kills more birds of prey than any other wind farm in the world as golden eagles, hawks, and other raptors fly into the spinning turbine blades.
Wind energy companies have attempted to reduce the bird kills by redesigning turbines and blades. They have worked hard at Altamont as well, but a recent five-year study by the California Energy Commission estimates that every year up to 1,300 raptors are killed, including more than a hundred golden eagles.
The problem: Altamont is a good place for wind power, but one of the worst possible places for wildlife.
Unfortunately, that is often the case elsewhere as well. For example, researchers in West Virginia were shocked to discover that a single 44-turbine wind farm in the Appalachian Mountains killed as many as 4,000 migratory bats. Similar findings have been reported at wind farms in Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
While the Audubon Society supports wind power, the group understandingly is lobbying state and local governments to require regional environmental impact studies before permitting proposed wind energy projects. In addition, Audubon wants each state to do a statewide survey to identify potential wind farm sites and overlay those sites with migratory bird pathways and bird and bat habitats.
California is moving ahead with a five-year, $25 million study of birds and bats at prime wind resource areas. In addition, state officials, industry representatives, and environmentalists are developing a set of wind power siting regulations and asking the state Legislature for more money to conduct research on wind power’s impact on songbirds, raptors and bats.
The Audubon Society in Washington is supporting a similar effort that would impose a host of new regulations and reporting requirements on wind power developers including: biological studies, design restrictions, operational monitoring and reporting, contingency plan to mitigate bird kills, handling and reporting requirements for dead and injured birds, and decommissioning plans for defunct wind farms.
In addition, Audubon of Washington wants to create a citizen task force to help develop these regulations and require developers to increase public input in the siting process.
Because Audubon’s “wish list” is expensive, the group may ask Washington lawmakers to appropriate millions to fund it.
Even with taxpayer subsidies, wind power is more expensive than conventional power, and the costs are growing. In fact, in June the Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimated wind turbine costs have increased between 50 and 70 percent over the last couple of years, and now there is an 18-month delay in the delivery of wind turbines from manufacturers.
New regulations and requirements would make it even more expensive.
Wind power should be one part of our energy strategy, along with hydropower, solar, tidal, natural gas, and clean coal. Making wind turbines safer for wildlife is necessary as well. But impossible production mandates, such as those written into I-937, are wrong.
There are too many unanswered questions about the costs wind power mandates in I-937 for voters to approve it in November.
These questions need answers before we are flattened by high electric bills or left in the dark because we don’t have enough electricity.
Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state’s chamber of commerce. Visit www.awb.org.
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