Florida Power & Light Co. bounced back fast last week after the Florida Public Service Commission nixed FPL’s plans for a coal-burning plant at the edge of the Everglades.
Two days later, the utility said it will consider a wind-power project for Hutchinson Island, on 1,132 acres – including a mile of oceanfront land – FPL owns near its St. Lucie nuclear plant. Gov. Crist put on his green hat and saluted, praising FPL for taking “this important first step toward the development of a wind-power project in Florida.”
He is correct, of course; any venture into renewable energy deserves applause. Wind power generates no pollution, so it helps to fight global warming. But it has an environmental downside: It can have a devastating impact on birds and bats.
That sad fact generates groans even from those sympathetic to environmental concerns: “At least wind power is better than coal”; “It’s always going to be something”; “What’s Florida supposed to do for power?” I’m disappointed to learn that wind power is not trouble-free. But it’s better to consider the problems up front.
An article last year in Audubon magazine, “Selling the Wind,” by Michelle Nijhuis (magazine.audubon.org/features0609/energy.html) details problems at an Altamont, Calif., wind area, where more than 5,000 turbines generate electricity for 100,000 homes. A California Energy Commission study estimates that 1,300 raptors – hawks, owls, eagles and other birds of prey, including more than 100 golden eagles – are killed at Altamont each year. Lawsuits have forced the power companies to shut down half the turbines during certain months and agree to remove at least 100 turbines.
The problems stem from an inadequate environmental review before the turbines were built. It seems that the area is loaded with ground squirrels and other small mammals, providing a veritable smorgasbord of raptors’ favorite foods.
Ms. Nijhuis writes of problems researching the effect of wind power on wildlife, citing what one wildlife biologist calls the ” ‘poofing factor,’ – migrating songbirds that collide with the massive turbine blades and could simply be obliterated, leaving no evidence on the ground and thus further skewing the numbers.” In other words, the birds go “poof.”
Fewer studies have been done to determine wind power’s impacts on bats, but one Ms. Nijhuis cites found that 44 wind turbines at a West Virginia site killed 4,000 migratory bats in seven months.
Solar power doesn’t appear to have any adverse environmental effects, but FPL spokeswoman Sharon Bennett said “it takes a lot of real estate to produce.” FPL is getting ready to build a 250-kilowatt solar array in Sarasota County. That can power about 50 homes, and it will require half a football field in land.
What about solar panels on the roofs of homes? That’s fine for heating swimming pools or water, Ms. Bennett said, but it’s not a large-generation resource. FPL has had a 10-kilowatt site in Martin County for a decade. But the company already has decided that solar and wind in Florida “cannot on their own meet the large-scale demands for power.” Both need lots of land, and Florida land is too expensive. Too much cloud cover hampers solar power production on a large scale, she said, and wind power “generally requires sustained winds of 12 miles per hour or stronger,” which makes deserts and mountain ranges a better bet for wind than Florida.
Julie Wraithmell, conservation associate with Audubon of Florida in Tallahassee, said Audubon supports wind power, though the effects on wildlife “aren’t entirely clear-cut.” Some places simply are not appropriate for wind turbines, she said, though size, design and height can mitigate some effects.
FPL’s Hutchinson Island site in St. Lucie County, she said, is “biologically rich.” The site is a wading bird rookery that in the fall attracts migrating raptors. Songbirds on the way to warmer territory in Florida and the Caribbean, she said, could be attracted to the wind structures.
FPL has looked for good Florida sites for wind power since 2005, Ms. Bennett said, and Hutchinson Island “looks like it’s worth pursuing.” FPL “wants to coexist as good environmental stewards,” and will work with all agencies to avoid impact on birds and wildlife. That’s good to know, because the information available about wind energy and wildlife indicates that some impact – literally – is inevitable.
By Sally Swartz
13 June 2007