If ever a case signalled the end of easy answers to our search for clean energy, it’s that of the wedgie.
We have had a complex relationship with the wedge-tailed eagle. Last century it was nearly annihilated as a sheep killer.
This writer remembers driving along a ghastly fence line hung for a kilometre with wedgie carcasses after a local shoot in Victoria’s western district.
Today such prejudices have largely disappeared. Respect for the country’s great raptor instead approaches the historic norm. Eagles have stood for us as symbols of strength and power from the days of the Ancient Greeks.
Still the wedgie gets run over on our roads, and flies into things that share its aerial domain – such as wind turbines.
As we search for means to sharply cut carbon emissions from energy production, increasingly we are turning to wind farms.
In Victoria alone there is the prospect of 1322 new turbines and their towers being built in 28 separate developments.
Another 376 would slice the breeze at three farms planned for Tasmania. And the country’s single largest wind farm, under development at Silverton, New South Wales, plans to landscape a tract of the outback with 598 towers.
All of this doesn’t happen without opposition, particularly from people who see losses to their previously unindustrialised homelands. Occasionally the issue will flare into national controversy, such as over the orange-bellied parrot.
The Howard government environment minister, Ian Campbell, halted a $220 million wind farm development at Bald Hills in Gippsland in 2006 because it might kill small numbers of the critically endangered parrot.
Campbell was ridiculed by Labor for a decision that coincidentally delivered electoral good news to a marginal Coalition seat around Bald Hills. Eventually he had to reverse it.
It’s a pity that the parrot, a fleet little beauty now close to extinction, became a joke in the Bald Hills barney. We should hope that if the wind farm explosion happens, we would deal much better with species protection.
That’s why the case of the wedgie, more exactly its endangered Tasmanian sub-species, gives pause for thought.
Larger than its mainland cousin at a 2.2-metre wingspan, its head often encircled with a regal golden feather ruff, the Tasmanian wedge-tailed numbers fewer than 1000 birds.
Its heartland is the state’s wild forests, where it can be glimpsed soaring the ridgelines, disdaining the harassing ravens and currawongs like a monster from prehistory.
At the state’s largest wind farm at Woolnorth in the island’s north-west, 19 wedge-tailed eagles are known to have been killed since it began operations in 2003. Another three sea eagles also have hit the rotors.
This is allowed. Federal and state environmental permits recognise Woolnorth’s rotors may kill a small number of eagles each year.
Operator Roaring 40s is keenly conscious of the image problem killing eagles poses. It refused access to pictures of the Woolnorth fatalities.
Nevertheless to its credit, the company, a joint venture of Hydro Tasmania and China Light & Power Asia, has tried hard to reduce the strikes.
It employs an avian ecologist to run a mitigation program, and does what it can, like clearing the ground beneath the 62 turbines of potential eagle food. Turbines have been shut down in some wind conditions, or when eagles are seen nearby.
Bird scaring devices have been employed, even the audibly painful long range acoustic device (LRAD) that Japanese whalers use against anti-whaling activists.
“All the eagles did was come and investigate,” said avian ecologist Cindy Hull. “The frustration for us is that the rate is staying constant despite our mitigation efforts.”
So the company is spending money on eagle nest protection and education around the rest of Tasmania, which is hoped to help offset the Woolnorth losses.
As we navigate through the great difficulties of carbon taxes or cleaning up coal, an alternative as apparently benign as wind power seems all the more attractive. But if the wedgie and its like do not make it too, our re-energised world will be much the bleaker.
Andrew Darby is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Hobart correspondent.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding