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We need a better gauge of wind farm threat to birds

A scientific panel has concluded that new wind farms could generate up to 7 percent of U.S. electricity in 15 years. That’s the positive side. The negative side is not good news for our fine feathered friends.

As more wind turbines spread throughout the nation, such as the spinning blades seen along Altamont Pass, the threat to birds and bats will grow. Basically, that’s as far as the National Academies of Science went during a recent panel discussion, saying wind is a good source of energy but dangerous for some of the most protected birds on the planet.

Flying the same path, back on April 24 Alameda County supervisors approved a one-year monitoring system to study the impacts of the Altamont Pass windmills on scores of birds – the victims being such raptors as golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and burrowing owls, among others. The price tag for this study is rather hefty – $1.4 million, which made some supervisors cringe – but, done properly and thoroughly, it potentially can act as a valuable tool.

Once and for all, we must find out what is truly the best way. According to a study released in 2004 by the California Energy Commission, an estimated

1,700 to 4,700 birds die each year flying into the whirling turbine blades or being electrocuted by transmission lines. That’s quite a spread in that particular estimate, which indicates we’re not actually sure how many birds die.

Definitive answers, particularly from the Alameda County study, are needed to see how we move forward with wind power. It’s obviously a viable source of energy, but questions linger, such as how many birds are sacrificed at Altamont Pass and how many more could perish if wind farms begin springing up nationwide. Answers need to be found before court cases, such as a recent settlement concerning raptor deaths, tie up the expansion of wind power for years.

Location is obviously a key factor. There’s been criticism in the past that Altamont Pass was the wrong place to erect wind turbines with the migration of birds in that area. Perhaps that’s a bit of information to use in the future – find suitable regions where bird migration is low.

If the bird deaths are too great, perhaps we can modify the turbines or look at a different way to draw in wind power. Even use some imagination, such as caging the turbines much like a larger version of what is found with indoor fans.

There are other solutions, but no matter what, we can’t reasonably move forward with wind power without conclusive information regarding the threat of death for our fine feathered friends.

The Argus


23 May 2007