Majestic white towers with powerful, spinning blades are beginning to dapple ridge lines along the Pennsylvania horizon. Supporters claim windmills provide a clean source of sustainable and renewable energy producing no air or water pollution, decrease the greenhouse effect, diminish reliance on fossil fuels and may hold the answer to rising gas and petroleum prices.
But windmills remain controversial as wildlife, including waterfowl game species, fall victim to the spinning blades. Wind farm opponents say ducks and geese are at risk at a proposed off-shore venture in the Lake Erie flyway, which extends from Pennsylvania’s Erie coastline through the Pymatuning Lake region. Two state senators have scheduled a public meeting on offshore wind energy for next month.
“There is direct mortality for birds from collisions with the turbines,” said Tracey Librandi Mumma, wind energy project supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Wind-power supporters argue that modern turbines kill about the same number of birds as vehicles, buildings, power lines and telecommunication towers. Mumma concedes the mortality statistics are comparable to other developments, but there is a more pressing issue.
“The game commission is more concerned with what species are being killed and how many,” Mumma said. “We don’t want a windmill to be put up in an area where we know we have threatened or endangered species.”
To address these and other issues, such as loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation, the commission has established an environmental review process as part of its Wind Energy Voluntary Cooperation Agreement. By signing the agreement, wind developers agree to conduct a one-year pre-construction survey followed by two years of post-construction mortality monitoring. To date, 29 wind developers have signed.
“If you’re signing the cooperative agreement with us, your intent is not to kill birds and mammals,” said Mumma. Companies that put up windmills without signing the agreement can be fined by the commission.
Proposed land-based and offshore wind development projects in the Lake Erie region recently have raised concerns about the effects of windmills on migratory waterfowl.
“We consider that a high-risk area for birds because there are known stop-over sites and foraging areas,” Mumma said.
The wind turbine industry’s interest in Pennsylvania is sparked in part because no state siting permit is required for wind energy projects. Apex Energy, a developer considering installing offshore wind turbines on Lake Erie, has signed the Voluntary Cooperative Agreement. The company’s Tim Ryan, who recently met with the SONS of Lake Erie sportsmen’s group for an information gathering session, said the windmills have a marginal impact on waterfowl and other birds, citing a National Wind Coordinating Collaborative study that found modern land-based turbines were in some ways safer for birds than lower, less efficient windmills of the past.
Ryan deflected concerns that birds could become weakened flying around blade tips that can reach 425 feet from the ground on land-based turbines.
“I’ve not heard that statement before and I’m not a scientist. I think that’s something that should be investigated by people who qualify to comment on that rather than speculated on by amateurs,” he said. “It sounds like a theory that some people could think is reasonable, but birds fly around lots of things all the time. It’s a scientific question that certainly would be studied on an offshore wind project along with any other questions about birds.”
Mumma said until more research can be conducted on mortality minimization efforts, the question remains as to whether the benefits of building windmills outweigh the risks.
“Right now, there are so many unknowns,” she said. “There are so many factors there with the economics and our dependence on fossil fuels. I don’t know how to weigh the till.”
Neither does Ducks Unlimited, which has no official policy regarding off-shore or near-shore wind turbines’ impact on waterfowl. Gildo Tori, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited’s Great Lakes and Atlantic office, said there’s not enough data on the emerging industry.
“There’s very little data to show direct impacts on waterfowl,” he said. “Our concern is the commonsense intuition that in areas close to shores with coastal wetlands, placement of wind towers in migratory bird zones is probably not a good idea.”
Two Pennsylvania state senators are beginning to gather data. Jane M. Earll, R-Erie, and Mary Jo White, R-Franklin, will hold a joint public information hearing on offshore wind energy 9:30 a.m. March 14 at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, Erie. Submit questions, concerns and opinions at www.senatorearll.com/lake-erie.htm.
John Hayes contributed to this story.
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