When listing off renewable sources of energy, wind almost certainly comes to the forefront. Wind technology is associated with being clean, sustainable, and endless. What people often overlook, however, is its potential damages to the environment it seeks to protect.
Wind turbines have become a leading alternative source of energy to fossil fuels around the world, and now North Carolina is preparing to build structures along the coast and the eastern part of the state. Federal and state officials have formed a task force to begin mapping and planning, said Seth Effron, communications director for the North Carolina Energy Office.
Still, some citizens and scientists alike are concerned about the potential environmental hindrances wind turbines would create. They feel the harm to the land might outweigh the help.
A June 2009 study from UNC-Chapel Hill on the feasibility of the wind turbines for eastern North Carolina found several potential dangers with the project. Among them: the displacement of species, the destruction of habitats, and even the killing of birds in some cases.
Harm to Wildlife
Dr. Stephen Fegley, an associate professor at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, co-led the study. He explained that turbines are installed with large, loud pile drivers that often scare off marine life temporarily.
“Based on the wind farms that have been created in Europe,” he said. “As soon as the piling began, the marine mammals swam away. As soon as the pile driving was over, they eventually came back.”
Fegley had not seen any negative effects on the animals under the water, although, in some instances, he had with those above.
“Even in the case of the existing wind farms, some are associated with a fairly large mortality of birds,” he said. It depends how the birds utilize a certain area, whether they feed on it or use it as a corridor for migration.
However, in some cases, he would observe the opposite. Fegley and his colleagues learned the turbine structures provided a basis for mussels and worms to grow on, like barnacles on an old ship. This in turn would bring more fish species into the area. In these cases, having the large wind structures proved very beneficial to the local ecosystems.
Power cables ruining land
The power lines connected to the turbine structures carry the potential to disrupt the surrounding marsh and topsoil. Initially, Fegley said, the land must be trenched, which would displace sea grass and could cause local terrain damage. It could also disrupt certain fisheries.
“There’s some evidence that the magnetic fields the cables create might disturb sharks and fish,” Fegley said.
It’s completely dependent on the area, though. In parts where cables would not cross any grass habitats, the equipment is not as hazardous.
There are plans to start designing floating turbines, which would operate much farther offshore, but costs are currently too high and no one has been able to test its effects on the ocean floor. Although Fegley said offshore turbines are generally considered safer than those onshore, he does not think having them float is a good idea.
“I legitimately think that would come to a point where it would completely change the landscape,” he said. “It could be quite objectionable.”
Another major complaint about the turbines is their obstruction of nature. Residents in counties considering wind projects have expressed a concern that the structures will interfere with their outdoor viewscape or with their recreational use of the water.
In 2009, the state Senate voted 42-1 to ban wind turbines from western North Carolina after an overflow of complaints about their running the scenery. National headlines and columns were written about how North Carolina voted down wind energy because it was “too ugly”. The bill was not taken up by the House.
But Julie Robinson, communications director of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA), said she thinks something has changed since then.
“I really think over the last three years, there’s been so much discussion and education and definitely more advancements in the technology,” said Robinson.
“In both the mountains and the coast, once people who expressed an early opposition hear more about the technology and the potential benefits, they become more supportive.”
The key to this, said Robinson, is conducting more conversations with local communities and disseminating information on project proposals. Iberdrola, the Spanish company that just announced construction of a 300-megawatt wind plant outside Elizabeth City, has been meeting with different groups there to discuss its intentions for more than a year.
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