Wind power may be the greenest of “green” energy sources. Wind is abundant, while fossil fuels are declining. Initial research and development costs are low, and we receive excellent energy return for energy invested.
There is no question that wind power reduces air pollution to the extent that it replaces fossil fuels.
In the Mid-Atlantic region wind turbines sited atop windy mountain ridges could provide up to 1 percent of the nation’s potential wind energy. That may not seem to be much compared to what America’s Great Plains could offer, but the turbines are here in Pennsylvania, and many more are on their way.
Now when one sits on Hawk Mountain observing raptor migration, a string of wind turbines is visible on a parallel ridge to the north.
Unfortunately there is no perfect energy source.
In West Virginia, the turbines are called “bat whackers.” More than 2,000-4,000 bats were killed by the 44 turbines at West Virginia’s Mountaineer Project in 2003. The bats appear to be hunting insects in the very ridge top clearings created for the turbines. Bats are agile, but they are not immune to the turbine blades on 300-400 feet tall towers with blade tip velocities reaching up to 180 mph.
California’s Altamont Pass, with 5,000 wind turbines, has been devastating to migratory raptors. Up to 1,300 raptors per year, including more than 100 Golden Eagles, were being killed by the spinning turbine blades. One of the problems with this site is the abundance of small rodents that attract the predators. Now operators are shutting down half the turbines over winter months when most raptors are present, and they have agreed to remove altogether 100 of the most destructive turbines.
A much more frightful development may be occurring in mountainous Oaxaca, Mexico, which is slated to receive 8,000 wind turbines via World Bank funding. Oaxaca also receives an amazing 4 million raptor migrants each fall along its mountain ridges. The World Bank will initially require the shutdown of half the turbines during migration, but it is unknown in advance just what the mortality will be.
Altamont and Oaxaca may be exceptionally unfortunate sites, but studies are under way to prevent similar problems in Pennsylvania. Researchers at the National Aviary and Powdermill Avian Research Center are tagging Golden Eagles with satellite telemetry devices to track their migration and to assess risks of wind energy development in Pennsylvania.
“At present there is little science to guide the development of wind power on Appalachian ridges,” says Dr. Todd Katzner, Director of Conservation & Field Research at the National Aviary. “Our aim in conducting this research is to provide the scientific information necessary to allow decision-makers to pursue use of renewable energy sources with environmental benefits, while at the same time developing this technology in an eagle-friendly way. In Pennsylvania we have a unique opportunity to conduct research before turbines are built, allowing the state to develop this technology in the most appropriate way possible.”
The goal is to obtain detailed information on where and how individual eastern golden eagles migrate through the entire Appalachian Mountain flyway. Land managers and government officials will be able to use the information during the siting, permitting and construction phases of wind farm development.
(A live map that tracks the progress of tagged golden eagles is available at www.aviary.org/csrv/eaglePA.php.)
Extensive data on animal kill due to wind turbines is scarce. Wind energy companies have little incentive to learn actual bird/bat mortality and they often deny access to their sites. Additionally, wind power proponents argue that wildlife loss due to wind turbines is far less than that due to vehicles, windows, etc. For example, National Audubon estimates that 100 million birds are killed annually by housecats and 60 million due to collisions with vehicles. These numbers are many orders of magnitude greater than estimated bird and bat loss to turbines.
Habitat loss is another consideration. One estimate would require wind turbines on 1,250 miles of Pennsylvania ridges in order to reach a state wind power goal.
At Mayersville, Pa. [note: Meyersdale, PA -NWW ed.], 350 acres of forest interior were destroyed to construct a wind plant, and an additional 80 acres were needed for access roads and clearing for the 20 turbines. These numbers will be repeated again and again with the expected growth of wind farms. Recently we learned that approximately 1,000 acres in Coal and East Cameron Townships, Northumberland County, are being considered for a wind farm.
Opponents claim the energy obtained from Pennsylvania wind would be small compared to the amount of destruction that would be caused. But destruction is relative. Dr. Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy observed that wind farming is far less damaging than, say, coal mining. He envisions “bird-friendly” wind power by selecting sites carefully, by using seasonal shutdowns, and by mitigating for habitat destruction. America could get 20 percent of its energy needs with 200,000 turbines, he claims, and other energy sources are far worse.
Regulation is an additional issue. In Pennsylvania, control is in the hands of local governments, of which there are more than 2500. It is too much to expect local expertise on all the issues that face our governments, wind power included. This virtually guarantees a lack of meaningful statewide control. Local zoning is often absent, and wind companies to date have had to meet few regulations.
Where does this leave us? A recent Audubon article, “Selling the Wind,” asked “How can [conservationists] support and encourage the rapid spread of wind power ““ our most promising source of clean, renewable energy ““ while ensuring that the industry minimizes its damage to birds and other wildlife?”
— Allen Schweinsberg is the president of Seven Mountains Audubon. Seven Mountains Audubon meets on the third Tuesdays, September through April, at 7:30 p.m. in Marlow Hall on the Riverwoods campus. All are welcome.
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