For many environmentalists, the modern wind turbine is a symbol of a cleaner energy future, and building wind farms as quickly as possible represents one of America’s best hopes to fight global warming.
But for many residents of mountain communities in the Appalachians where most of the nation’s wind development east of the Mississippi has happened or is now planned, industrial wind turbines represent something less optimistic: the spoiling of pristine wilderness for little benefit to anyone except wind developers themselves.
Now, wind opponents can call on a new report by the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences to help them make their case.
“We found that there are clearly some environmental downsides related primarily to wildlife impacts including forest fragmentation,” says Rick Webb, a wildlife scientist at the University of Virginia who helped author the NAS report, “Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy Projects.”
“The report found that data had not been collected at enough sites to reach strong conclusions about birds. We don’t have the data to find impacts on bird populations. It is clear that there is a significant potential for impact to bats. They’re particularly vulnerable on Appalachian ridgelines.”
On the other side, the report projects that wind power will provide less than five percent of the nation’s electricity by 2020.
“The committee was not charged with making a determination about the significance of the potential contribution of wind energy development,” Webb says. “Nor was it charged with weighing the costs and benefits. My personal perspective, however, is that wind energy development on Appalachian ridges carries great risk of environmental harm and very little potential for benefits.”
The report, put out by the NAS’ National Research Council, focused on wind development in an area of the central Appalachians known as the Mid-Atlantic Highlands ““ including the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia – but wind opponents and supporters alike agree that it has implications for wind projects nationwide.
“It’s a pretty good compilation of many of the issues that we know,” says Frank Maisano, spokesman for a group of wind-power developers in mid-Atlantic states. “On the other hand it almost has a time stamp on it because it took so long to roll out. We’re learning more every day about this issue. Something that was observed over a year ago in a quick review is almost time-stamped and we’ve already moved beyond it.”
For example, Maisano says, the industry has found ways to reduce the danger of wind turbines to birds and bats that are not considered in the report.
Webb doesn’t agree.
“The people on the committee that I’m working with are well informed on what’s going on. Nothing that would have dramatically changed our assessment has come out since then.”
Webb says that the members of the panel stand behind its main findings: that the dangers of wind turbines to wildlife and local communities are not well understood and need more study; and that national guidelines for evaluating the environmental costs and energy benefits of new and existing projects are also needed.
Transparency or Cover-up?
“Part of the reason the data have not been collected is that the industry has not allowed access to sites for study in some important cases,” says Webb. For example, Florida-based FPL Energy, the largest producer of wind electricity in the U.S., refused to grant the NRC panel members access to a wind facility it operates in West Virginia that has been the subject of much controversy for killing large numbers of bats.
Maisano says that there was nothing sinister going on.
“The turbines are right off the road,” Maisano says. “The other part is that it’s private property and there are property owners and others that the utilities have to deal with. It’s something that opponents will take out of context to try to prove their point that no one wants to work with them or that the wind industry is trying to block them.”
But Webb remains skeptical and questions the company’s motives in excluding the NAS researchers from the Mountaineer facility.
“It was very strange. What FPL Energy advised the committee is that couldn’t provide access based on post-9/11 security considerations. Later they said it was about safety on industrial sites.”
This follows on a similar incident at the facility four years earlier. After observers from the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative documented between 2,000 and 4,000 dead bats at the 44-turbine Mountaineer Wind Energy Center over a six-month period in 2003, bat advocates claim the company barred them from the site.
“In 2003,” Webb says, “some of the scientists suggested that most of the bats seemed to be killed during certain seasons of the year when wind was low and they suggested that the turbines be turned off during those times, but FPL Energy responded by cutting off access. The company has not been a good actor.”
Maisano says that the industry continues to try to understand the potential danger of turbines to bats and is working on ways to make them safer.
Effects on Global Warming
The NRC report projects that on-shore wind development will not reduce future global warming emissions, but merely slow their rate of increase.
“Wind power development will offset emissions of carbon dioxide by 1.2 to 4.5 percent from the levels of emissions that would otherwise occur from electricity generation,” Webb explains, summarizing the report’s findings. “At present, electrical generating units account for 39 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from energy use. If the 39 percent value does not change, wind power development will offset only 0.5 to 1.8 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions from energy use.”
Matt Wasson, conservation director of Appalachian Voices, an activist group based in Boone, NC, is more optimistic about conservation, and he takes issue with Webb in particular.
“Basically his arguments start with an assumption pretty popular with the coal industry that demand for energy is going to be skyrocketing and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The NRC report makes its projections about the potential share of wind power in the future electricity mix based on projections of growing energy use from the Department of Energy, which says that demand for electricity should rise about 2.5 percent annually in the coming years.
Wasson puts less stock in this data, since the Bush Administration, which oversees the DOE, is hostile to both conservation and renewables. “Many scientists say that our future could look very different than the graphs you pull off the DOE website,” Wasson says. He thinks that wind development should be a priority to reduce the need for electricity from coal, which currently provides about half of the nation’s power.
Of course, it’s anyone’s guess how much energy America will use in the future, but if the economy continues to grow and historical trends of power usage hold, then the nation’s demand for electricity is certain to rise. In this case, there will still be a need for coal.
“If you covered every inch of Appalachian ridges with wind turbines, it would probably not reduce coal mining or coal burning at all. It would only reduce the growth a bit,” says Webb.
Whatever wind’s ultimate contribution to electricity generation, Wasson sees it as relatively benign for wildlife.
“Eastern turbines kill something like four or five birds per year. A typical person might hit that many driving around, so just to put that in perspective that would take a lot of turbines to come close to roads or even domestic cats.”
Webb wonders at the common claim that cats kill more birds than turbines. “To approach this in a meaningful way you have to consider species and location.”
First, Webb says that as yet, not many wind turbines have been built. With more turbines in the future, more birds are likely to be killed.
Second, he agrees that cats do kill large numbers of small birds like starlets, which are numerous and quick to reproduce. But do cats kill many large birds like golden eagles, hawks and other raptors? Webb guesses that it’s probably the other way around – that cats have more to fear from eagles. Yet, these large birds, which are slow to reproduce and much more important in the food chain than smaller birds, have been killed in significant numbers by wind turbines.
Wasson says that large bird deaths have only been documented at one wind facility, Altamont Pass in California, known for its older turbines and unfortunate location on a bird migration route. A study published in 2004 suggested that Altamont’s 4,000 turbines kill anywhere from 880 to 1,300 eagles, hawks and falcons each year.
But other studies have shown that turbines also kill birds in Spain, Britain and Norway, according to the BBC.
And while Webb and other critics of wind power invoke the precautionary principle ““ let’s wait to build wind turbines on Appalachian ridges until we have time to do the research to prove that they’re safe for wildlife and that they produce enough energy to justify their negative impacts on local environments ““ Wasson says that the fight against global warming needs to play a larger role.
“Yes, I do think it should apply to wind projects, but when 51 percent of our electricity comes from coal, we should take the precautionary principle on global warming too. We need to monitor these things closely but at the same time we need to move ahead on the information that we have.”
Part of a Bigger Solution
Christine Real de Azua of the American Wind Energy Association, the industry lobby group in Washington, also takes issue with the pessimistic projections about the potential of wind to reduce greenhouse gas emissions made by the NRC report.
“Wind power is doing what it can. You have other studies put together by the American Solar Energy Society where you combine very strong efficiency and strong growth in renewables and in that scenario efficiency and renewables can help cap atmospheric carbon at 450-500 parts per million, which is the level being proposed by the more aggressive or protective of the climate bills now in Congress. And in these scenarios, wind is the biggest chunk of growth in power generation. So a lot of it depends on the assumptions that you put into the scenario.”
As to the dangers of wind turbines to wildlife, Real de Azua does not oppose research, but says that wind has proven itself safe enough to birds and bats that new wind development should not be delayed.
“From a researcher’s point-of-view there’s always more research you can do, it’s an ongoing thing almost by definition. But in the scope of things clearly wind is a much smaller threat than other sources of energy.”
Webb says that the jury is still out on wind’s environmental impact, and he feels that wind developers should be required to do much more research on the dangers of turbines to local ecosystems before projects are approved. He supports a bill introduced in Congress in May by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) that would require federal oversight of all new and existing wind power projects.
“Congressman Rahall’s bill seems responsive to the NRC committee’s call for effective environmental review of wind projects,” says Webb, who adds that the bill “looks very rational.”
But the Wind Energy Association opposes the measure, the Energy Policy Reform and Revitalization Act of 2007 (H.R. 2337), claiming that it would “essentially outlaw the generation of electricity from new wind power plants in the United States and even phase out power production from existing wind turbines,” according to a statement.
In its efforts to ensure effective environmental review, the section of Rahall’s bill covering wind power may impose draconian restrictions on new and existing wind projects. At least that’s how the industry sees it.
“It would bar a new project from coming on line until certified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which could take years,” says Real de Azua. “Even existing turbines, and even those in backyards, could be subject to inspection by FWS. Erecting a turbine without their approval would become a crime punishable by a $50,000 fine and a year in jail. It’s excessive regulation and ignores the current work that the industry is already doing with FWS and wildlife authorities at the state level.
“Finally, this looks at wind only,” Real de Azua says. “And wind is not the only energy source that has wildlife impacts. Mining, drilling and transporting oil, gas and coal all have impacts. There’s no proposal for any guidelines for any other source. Wind energy is being singled out unfairly.”
Other provisions of Rahall’s bill do cover other energy sources, though it is not clear that the bill imposes new environmental protection requirements on producers of fossil fuels or nuclear power.
Webb says that other energy sources already face federal regulation, including the Clean Water Act, the Surface Mine Reclamation Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. While there have been problems implementing these laws, that they have protected the environment.
“For example, the past and projected reductions in sulfur and nitrogen emissions are due to the Clean Air Act and the Clean Air Interstate Rule. Sulfur emissions are mostly associated with coal-fueled power plants, and huge gains in control of those emissions have been achieved and projected due to regulation.”
Real de Azua says that wind developers are already subject to environmental reviews in two dozen states, but Webb says that’s not enough.
“In some states the only review available is local land-use officials and zoning boards. You can’t expect people functioning at that capacity to have access to the information they need to make a decision. Although they’re very conscientious people, they don’t have the expertise in energy and environmental matters to do objective cost-benefit analysis.”
Friends of Coal
The challenge for wildlife advocates like Webb who criticize wind development, especially in Appalachia, is that some of their strongest allies also turn out to be strong supporters of the coal industry, which automatically calls their motives into question.
“For so many, filthy coal is a dirty four-letter word,” Rahall of West Virginia told the New York Times. “These individuals, I tell you, have their heads buried in the sand.” As chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rahall is part of a bipartisan group in Congress pushing for billions of dollars in subsidies to build plants to liquefy coal, a process that industry giants such as Peabody Energy claim will help replace oil as a fuel for vehicles.
Rahall, along with his West Virginia Democratic colleague Rep. Alan Mollohan, were the ones who initiated the National Academy of Sciences study on the environmental impact of wind power that Webb helped write. The rationale for the report came from a provision of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 calling for studies on the environmental impacts of various energy sources including, but not limited to, wind power.
“In this context, the Mollohan-Rahall request for a wind-only study from the NAS instead of the broader comparative NAS study that was called for the by Energy Policy Act of 2005 suggests the request was intended as a preliminary step in an effort to stop wind-power development,” Real de Azua says.
Webb responds that “the report acknowledges that there are many serious problems associated with traditional electricity production.” Yet, its focus remains the environmental impacts of wind power, rather than coal, oil or nuclear energy.
“It could be death by a thousand cuts to wind and that’s why you see opponents jumping up and down right now,” says wind-developer spokesman Maisano. “But I don’t think people who want to reduce greenhouse gases will support an additional layer of regulation.”
Though opponents have accused Webb of apathy on global warming or sympathy for the coal industry, such charges are specious.
“I get it. I understand the problems with our reliance on fossil fuel and particularly coal,” says Webb. “I know what it does to Appalachia and I know what it does to the people. I lived in West Virginia. I met lots of people who lost their water supplies from mountaintop-removal coal mining.”
In the 1970s, Webb founded a group called Mountain Stream Monitors to push for enforcement of provisions of the Surface Mine Act that limited pollution of water resources by coal mining. When Webb published in the newsletter of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy evidence of pollution from a strip mine in Upshur County run by the DLM Coal Company, the company filed a $200,000 lawsuit against him. The case was later dismissed by the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Steak, Not Sizzle
While Webb opposes wind development on Appalachian ridgelines, he thinks it could work offshore, where 90 percent of the U.S. wind resource is found, or in the Great Plains, which experiences high winds and where landowners have generally welcomed turbines as income generators. But he’s concerned that the current rush to develop wind is more about corporate welfare than about clean energy to fight climate change.
“One of the primary concerns that I would have is that this industry, which is being heavily supported through tax subsidies, is not being cooperative with the people who are trying to solve the problems associated with it.”
To fight global warming, more important than building wind turbines or bringing other alt-energy sources online is cutting back on the energy that America uses ““ and wastes ““ every year, according to Webb.
“Efficiency is the steak, renewables are the sizzle,” Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, told the New York Times. The Times article notes that coal energy today costs about ten cents a kilowatt-hour (and could double in a few years if carbon taxes are enacted), but that the effective cost of investments to save energy is only four cents or less.
Webb agrees that the U.S. can make cheap, easy gains in energy conservation.
“Americans have not done very much so far, not even some trivial things that others have done, like phasing out incandescent light bulbs. This country hasn’t been seriously talking about gas mileage standards for cars a long time. We’re just coming out a phase when any discussion of such things was scoffed at on the highest levels.”
But Webb isn’t holding his breath for Americans to start saving energy as long as it remains relatively cheap: “We need to start paying the full cost for our electricity.”
By Erik Curren
June 2, 2007
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