Wind energy is “brown,” not green, Boston University professor Thomas Kunz told members the Rhode Island Natural History Survey at a November 19 presentation at the University of Rhode Island.
Kunz, an internationally known bat researcher and director of BU’s Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, said wind turbines annually kill many raptors as well as tens of thousands of bats in the United States. Since these turbines have been promoted as an answer to America’s energy woes, Kunz called for more research into the environmental effects of wind power. He also warned that high numbers of bat fatalities may cause populations of insects to increase dramatically.
Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri has championed the creation of a wind farm, likely near Block Island, as a way to meet his goal of the state getting 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
Rhode Island environmental groups have supported the push for wind power.
Eugenia Marks, senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, points out that global warming caused by burning fossil fuels may be a greater risk to animals than wind turbines.
“There are risks and benefits to any course we take. What we need to do is increase the benefits and decrease the risks,” Marks said. Turbine location, she says, “is a very important part of the process.”
Sheila Dormody, Rhode Island director for Clean Water Action, adds that all alternative sources, like all new traditional power plants, should be required to submit environmental impact statements.
Kunz recently contributed to a National Research Council (an arm of the National Academy of Sciences) study of the impacts of wind energy. He reports that wind turbines produce 21,000 megawatts of electricity nationally with another 8,000 megawatts planned. “Whether the fauna can withstand that development is certainly not clear,” he says.
He also argues that wind power can make only a small contribution to the nation’s energy needs.
According to Kunz, if 200 two-megawatt turbines were constructed every year, they would only meet West Virginia’s projected increase in demand for electricity. Solar, nuclear and underwater generation are better ways, he argued, to meet America’s rising energy demands and reduce carbon dioxide emissions which cause global warming.
Bats appear to be attracted to wind turbines, Kunz says, but they fly at 25 or 30 mph and cannot always avoid turbine blades, which may move at 125 mph at their tips. Pregnant bats, carrying babies that comprise 25 percent of their body weight, have an especially difficult time maneuvering around turbines’ rotating blades. Many bats also die when their lungs explode as the air pressure rapidly changes as the turbine blades whoosh past.
Unfortunately, Kunz said, many power companies refuse to fund research on the impacts of wind farms and some even deny scientists access to turbines to count bird and bat fatalities. Kunz says that after a study of a West Virginia turbine found the highest bat fatality rate on record, the company denied scientists access to the site. He refused, however, to name the company. No research has been done on offshore wind turbines’ effect on bats, Kunz says. There are anecdotal accounts from fishermen of bat sightings 15 miles out to sea.
In the eastern United States, eastern red bats, hoary bats and tri-colored bats, suffer the most fatalities. Fatalities also are highest during the late summer and early fall bat migrations. Fatalities are rare, however when wind speeds exceed six meters per second, Kunz notes, because insects take cover at higher wind speeds.
To reduce bat deaths by as much as 50 percent, Kunz advocates stopping wind turbines at low wind speeds, which generates little electricity. He also wants companies that receive government subsidies to be required to allow environmental studies on their property. Finally he calls for carefully locating turbines to avoid key animal habitats. “I’m against wind energy where development occurs where we don’t know what the effects are,” he notes.
No bat fatalities have been observed at Rhode Island’s one functioning wind turbine at Portsmouth Abbey School, according to Brother Joseph Byron. Since the 241-foot high structure started producing power in March 2006, Byron has observed only one red tail hawk death. Kunz, however, says documenting bat fatalities can be difficult because their bodies may be lost in the brush or eaten by scavengers.
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