In a high-stakes issue for Michigan, Congress took its first look Tuesday at the killing of birds and bats by huge wind turbines.
U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W. Va., warned that wind turbines in the Appalachian mountains of his home state have killed so many bats that they could become an endangered species.
That got the attention of U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, who wondered aloud whether the drive to increasingly use wind turbines in Michigan could undermine efforts to restore the forest industry by killing bats needed to keep insect populations down.
“One of the threats to forest industry are insects, and bats might have a role,” said Kildee, who sits on the subcommittee that held the hearing ominously titled “Gone With the Wind: Impacts of Wind Turbines on Birds and Bats.”
“Perhaps we can find a way to have both wind power and protect the environment,” Kildee added.
That goal – figuring out how to protect wildlife while boosting the reliance on wind energy, which reduces global warming – was echoed by other lawmakers and witnesses, including bird and bat advocates.
Environmentalists, including those at the hearing, generally support wind-produced energy. But they want the federal government to require the wind industry to take precautions to minimize bird kills by, for example, locating the turbines away from migratory paths.
“Wind-energy developers are not going to voluntarily take all the steps that are reasonably necessary for the protection of wildlife,” Mollohan said, adding that West Virginia developers ignored calls for multi-year studies on the impact of turbines on bats before constructing new ones.
“These developers are for-profit corporations that, like any other, are answerable to their shareholders,” added Mollohan, who said developers have been given “a de facto exemption from the wildlife protection laws.”
Michigan has a huge potential for wind power that it has barely begun to tap.
In addition, the state, because of its manufacturing knowledge and worker expertise, could become a center for the production of parts for wind turbines.
Kildee said it’s critical to figure out now, in the early stages of the development of wind energy, how to reduce dangers to wildlife. Otherwise, he warned, the nation could repeat to birds and bats what happened with the dams in the Northwest that were quickly built to supply electricity without weighing the devastating impact on salmon.
But U.S. Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, argued that wind turbines kill few birds compared to glass-window buildings, vehicles, transmission lines and outdoor cats.
“Isn’t it unfair to just focus on the turbines, when there is so much else to focus on?” Sali asked.
Spokesmen for the wind industry, who weren’t asked to testify, told reporters after the hearing that opponents are over-blowing the potential threat and ignore several studies that show minimal damage to wildlife.
The Michigan Public Service Commission is proposing that 10 percent of Michigan’s energy come from renewable sources – mostly from wind – by 2015. Currently, most of the 3 percent of renewable energy in Michigan comes from hydro-electric plants and landfill gases.
Michigan has three commercial wind turbines: Traverse City Light and Power has a 600,000 watts wind generator that creates power for about 200 households. Two larger wind generators operate near Mackinaw City.
In addition, several wind generators are being built in the Thumb region. Wyandotte Municipal Utility is considering installing two wind generators near the Detroit River, and is weighing the potential impact on birds.
Bats are instinctively attracted to the whirling blades, meaning simply locating wind turbines away from bats may not solve the problem because they may seek them out. Scientists are searching for ways to override bats’ instinct by, for example, disrupting the wind flow near turbines so that the bats feel so uncomfortable that they will stay away.
By Deb Price
The Detroit News
2 May 2007
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