In the beginning, wind power seemed like the perfect poster child for the alternative-energy crusade. It was an earth-friendly means of loosening the strangle of foreign oil.
Unlike its bedrock predecessor in Pennsylvania – coal – wind turbines promised cheap energy without scarring the environment. No acid mine drainage, no strip mines, no soot, no global-warming gases, no siphoning of water, no clearcutting of forests.
Heck, they hardly made any noise. And when their work was done, you could simply disassemble the windmills, turning the mountaintops back to trees.
Already, with seven wind farms churning the air on ridgetops and wind-swept plateaus, and four more scheduled to begin turning in the wind this year, Pennsylvania is the top wind-energy producer east of the Mississippi.
But that’s just a breeze compared to the hurricane of turbines Gov. Ed Rendell, utilities mandated to find alternative-energy power sources and wind-energy manufacturers hope to see adorning the state’s high points.
They would like to see wind farm output 16 times higher within the next 15 years – enough to power almost 85,000 homes. According to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, there is enough wind-energy potential to power almost 5 million homes.
And, indeed, as many as 60 more wind farms are being explored, including a 10,000-acre proposal on Shaffer Mountain in Somerset County calling for 30 turbines, each 404 feet all.
Closer to home, the city of Harrisburg is inviting wind-energy developers to consider land it owns on top of Peters Mountain, north of the city, near the Appalachian Trail and the Stony Creek Wilderness.
The Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority and PPL are studying to see if Turkey Point along the Susquehanna in Manor Township could drive six 250-foot-high turbines.
Rendell has already enticed Spain’s Iberdrola, the world’s leading developer of wind farms, and Gamesa Energy, also of Spain, a leading wind farm developer and turbine blade manufacturer, to locate their U.S. beachheads in eastern Pennsylvania.
A vastly expanded wind energy field is a linchpin in the governor’s proposed $850 million Energy Independence Fund.
Though the wind farms, to date, have been on private lands, the push for wind also has put pressure on public lands.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is exploring whether to allow wind turbines on about 38,000 acres of what it considers non-sensitive state forestland on Appalachian ridges in the south and southcentral parts of the state. Wind farms would not be allowed in state parks or the 12 northcentral counties in the “Pennsylvania Wilds” region being developed for eco-tourism.
The legislature and the governor would have to give DCNR the authority to allow wind farms. DCNR expects to decide before the end of the year if it will seek that authority.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has deemed wind power a “noncompatible use” for its 1.4 million acres of hunter-purchased game lands, but has left the door slightly open if a developer can prove a better site can’t be found and replacement land is made.
But as with ethanol, another alternative energy out of the gate with breakneck speed, daunting questions are emerging about wind energy and the bandwagon is losing some riders.
Wind projects around the state, largely unregulated by state environmental laws, are finding themselves hindered by lawsuits and organized residents.
Among the concerns now being voiced by some scientists and environmental groups about wind farms in Pennsylvania:
• The number of ridge-riding migratory birds, especially bats and golden eagles, drawn to and killed by turbine blades.
Pennsylvania’s Allegheny and Appalachian ridges are among the most heavily used migration routes on the Atlantic Coast. Scientists say studies just don’t exist yet in Pennsylvania to determine whether turbines here pose a serious threat to birds.
High plateaus are not of concern.
• The effect on animals, reptiles, amphibians and ground-nesting birds by fragmenting the state’s remaining unbroken forests with high-rise windmills and accompanying access roads and power-line swaths.
“We’re talking about industrial wind farms with massive roads,” says Tim Maret, a biologist at Shippensburg University who has advised the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Biological Survey, a scientist group, on wind farm matters.
“Just carrying up the blades takes a semi truck. To fragment these large areas is going to have pretty detrimental effects.”
• The aesthetics of adorning the state’s most visible land features and wild areas with tall, dimly lit turbines.
The sacrifices to wildlife and, as one Fayette County resident puts it, “a psychology of loss stemming from the public’s traditional attachment to Pennsylvania’s open areas,” may not be worth the relatively small reduction in global-warming carbon emissions, some say.
Maret estimates it would take 635 wind turbines on 80 miles of ridgetops to get a mere 1 percent reduction in global-warming carbon emissions from Pennsylvania’s current output.
The ensuing debate is causing an internal soul-searching among environmental groups, many of which had initially embraced the technology, and has even pitted some environmentalists against each other.
For example, last week, the Wind Truth Coalition, a newly formed umbrella of groups pushing for tougher siting regulations for wind farms, met in the Capitol Building to protest Rendell’s gung-ho wind energy charge.
But PennFuture, one of the state’s largest environmental groups, chided the groups, calling them “well-meaning but totally misinformed activists.
“There is no perfect form of energy, but wind power comes closest to being perfect,” said PennFuture president John Hangar. “We cannot let our need for clean and affordable energy be blocked by a search for a mythical perfect technology.”
Wind turbines’ threat to migratory birds and bats has drawn the most attention. Early design problems have been corrected – turbines no longer have places birds can perch on and bird-attracting lighting has become muted. But mortality fears persist.
Initial concerns dwelled on migratory birds. But mandatory carcass searches on existing turbines has made bat mortality a prime concern, heightened by the fact that bats are slow reproducers.
“We’re into a question we don’t have the answer to,” notes Maret. “How many deaths can bats take? We need to do more research before we go too far.”
Along with a site in West Virginia, the highest number of bats killed by turbine blades anywhere in the U.S. has occurred at the Meyersdale Wind Power Project in Somerset County.
A recent flashpoint in the wind farm-siting debate, ironically, has been an attempt by state natural resource agencies to get wildlife-protecting guidelines in place to steer turbines to suitable locations on private and public lands.
The Wind Energy Voluntary Cooperation Agreement adopted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and signed by 12 wind-industry developers and manufacturers seeks to monitor mortality studies before and after turbine construction.
Though billed “as a model for the nation” by DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis, it has been attacked by some of the very environmental groups that served as advisers.
The Pennsylvania Biological Survey, which complains that it was never consulted on the final draft, though wind energy companies were, says the protocol has a fatal flow: Wind develpers can stop research if it is not “deemed to be in their best interest.”
Moreover, developers have to do minimal studies on wildlife damage before and after turbines are built, PABS says, and whatever is found is unlikely to have a bearing on siting.
“Sadly, there appears to be no mitigation requirements in the PGC protocol for impacts to bats and birds,” the organization adds. The document calls for remedial action “discussions” in the case of high mortality.
Even DCNR, if it pursues wind farms, says it would go beyond the PGC guidelines and require three years of monitoring before any site would be approved and would have more teeth in requiring mitigation if harm to wildlife or habitat is found, according to John Quigley, DCNR director of legislation and strategic initiatives.
Another potential shortcoming is that Florida Power & Light, which owns five of the seven existing wind farms in the state, did not sign on to the voluntary PGC guidelines.
Still, Maret praises the Game Commission for doing something about siting wind farms. “Nobody was doing anything,” he says, adding that he thinks some of the issues with the protocol can be fixed.
Pennsylvania Audubon, though supporting wind development, concludes that many of the ridges being eyed for wind energy are on key migration routes followed by birds of prey and on the state’s remaining unfragmented forest tracts.
Any potential site should have three years of bird monitoring, the group recommends, embracing standards suggested by the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
According to scientists at the world-renowned Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the entire 250-mile Kittatinny Ridge, known in Pennsylvania variously as Blue Mountain, First Mountain and Front Mountain, is no place for wind turbines.
“We need to give (wind power) a fair shake,” suggests Maret. “What has to go into the discussion has to be that wind energy is not cost-free. It has its environmental costs.
“We need to do a cost-benefits analysis. In some cases, it will come out for wind energy.”
By Ad Crable
Lancaster New Era
25 September 2007
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