Hundreds of people recently gathered at an Annapolis rally to promote offshore wind power, energized for change. A wind “superhero” in a blue and silver costume roamed the crowd with a flowing cape, while a grungy coal-costumed man symbolized the dismal alternative.
The crowd’s mood was upbeat and the message was clear: Wind power can transform the world.
But wind power transforms the landscape, too.
As plans for the nation’s first offshore wind farms take shape, 21 wind farms churn the air on plateaus and ridge tops of the mid-Atlantic region. More are in the queue.
Industrial-scale wind farms have altered the rural landscape in places where the natural environment and quiet living are high priorities. Some local residents and conservationists say wind turbines are an assault on both.
The American Wind Energy Association, a trade organization representing wind developers, utility companies, manufacturers and researchers, says that wind is a largely untapped national resource that generates renewable energy and combats global warming. Its impact on humans and the environment is minimal – with far fewer drawbacks than other electricity sources such as coal, natural gas and nuclear power.
The Mountain Institute, a nonprofit organization based in West Virginia, is about to release a new study on the opportunities and barriers to wind installations in the mid-Atlantic highlands. Researcher Brent Bailey said that state and federal policies are driving an increase in wind farms, but site-specific decisions are complex.
“A lot of nuance about this hasn’t made it to the public,” Bailey said. “It still seems to be a case of all or none, you’re for it or against it. What we’re more likely to find is that in some places you’d be for it, and other places you’d be against it.”
Big as a Boeing 747
The environmental challenges to wind development on mid-Atlantic ridge tops involve both air space and the forest floor.
From a distance, wind turbines look like oversized pinwheels. But turbines are massive pieces of technology that sweep a vertical air space equal to or greater than the span of a Boeing 747.
The towers usually range 200-300 feet tall. Three blades extend from the hub, adding at least another 100 feet to its total height. A 262-foot tower with 142-foot blades tops out at more than 400 feet.
The size and movement of the turbines have the potential to increase mortality for bats and birds. There is the possibility of collision as well as deaths from a drop in the air pressure near the turbines.
The American Wind Energy Association stresses that bird and bat mortality from wind turbines is small when compared to other causes of death. In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that wind turbines account for 440,000 bird deaths annually. However, hundreds of millions of birds fall prey to cats each year. At least 60 million are hit by cars and 97 million collide with buildings.
Still, conservationists worry about the consequences of poorly sited wind farms and the cumulative effect across the nation. The American Bird Conservancy said that the build-out of wind energy currently proposed by the federal government could kill at least one million birds per year by 2030.
“The real answer is that we simply don’t yet have enough data to reliably estimate cumulative impacts, but once acquired, the impacts will likely far exceed current estimates,” said Albert Manville of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Bird Management.
Bird species already noted for their shrinking populations account for a disproportionate number of turbine-related deaths. No one knows why. “The numbers of Bird Species of Conservation Concern killed by wind turbines is increasing, and that’s troubling,” Manville said. “These species are already declining, in some cases rather precipitously.”
Unexpectedly high bat mortality was discovered at wind farms in West Virginia and Pennsylvania beginning in 2003.
Conservationists have special concern for the Indiana bat, an endangered species with a range throughout the central Appalachians. Two groups in Maryland have sued Constellation Energy for the potential impact on Indiana bats at its Criterion wind farm in Garrett County, MD, insisting that the company apply for an “incidental take permit” from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Incidental take permits are required when activities will result in take of threatened or endangered species. A habitat conservation plan, which must accompany an application for the permit, ensures that the effects of the authorized incidental take are adequately minimized and mitigated.
According to the National Wind Energy Association, the industry has been increasingly proactive in reviewing the impact of proposed wind farms on flyways and bat mortality. The Bat and Wind Energy Cooperative is developing better screening tools for site selection and testing measures to minimize their impact, including ultrasonic devices to warn bats away from turbines and adjustments to turbine speeds. The BWEC was formed in 2003 by Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission partners with 26 wind companies on a voluntary basis.
“We have had very good cooperative relationships with wind companies that have worked with us in areas where impacts have been identified to proactively avoid, minimize or mitigate their impacts,” said spokesman Jerry Feaser. “It’s working.”
In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released draft guidelines for wind turbines-and the protection of eagles specifically. The guidelines are voluntary, and the drafts are open for public comment.
Concerns about wind farms touch the ground as well as the air. Turbines can be built on existing cleared spaces, including farmland, but sometimes the sites are forested.
Conflicts with forest habitat are especially likely in the mid-Atlantic highlands where the region’s best wind resources overlap with the region’s most valuable mountain habitat. Both are on ridge lines. And some of those ridge lines are home to headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay.
“Those ridges lines are valuable partially because they have high elevation habitat, but also because they are headwater locations – maybe not right at the ridge line but easily within a couple of hundred feet,” said The Mountain Institute’s Brent Bailey. “In the official review process, water issues have not figured prominently. They focus more often on endangered species.”
Onshore wind farms also need substations, access roads for trucks, staging areas for the enormous turbine components, and large pads to anchor the finished turbines.
The Nature Conservancy found that the each of the 500 turbines currently turning in Pennsylvania required clearing about 1.9 acres of land for the pad and associated infrastructure. Disturbances and forest fragmentation also reduced the habitat value of the adjacent forest, for a total impact of 15.3 acres per turbine.
“What happens to the forest right next to those roads and those turbines has a broad effect,” said Nels Johnson, deputy director for the Nature Conservancy in Pennsylvania. “It changes the environment in the adjacent forest – more light, less humidity, more wind – and that changes the habitat for forest interior species.”
Impacts to Pennsylvania forests in the coming years will depend on the number of turbines built and the extent of clearing needed at each site. The Nature Conservancy studied low-, medium- and high-intensity scenarios and found that the result ranged from 9,000 to 35,000 impacted acres.
Johnson said that drilling gas from the Marcellus Shale formation will have a far greater impact on the Pennsylvania landscape than wind power. But the combined impact is worrisome.
“We have a huge wave of new energy development coming into the mid-Atlantic and central Appalachian region,” Johnson said. “The cumulative impacts of all these forms of development could lead to major shifts in land use and have the potential to seriously impact our natural habitats throughout the Chesapeake watershed.”
Brook trout may be especially vulnerable. An indicator species for the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, brook trout have been pushed back into high mountain streams and a fraction of their original range. “Eighty percent of those watersheds now look to see fairly intensive gas and wind development,” Johnson said.
Impacts on humans?
Some of the most vocal resistance to wind farms in the Appalachians is about people, not wildlife. Cultural issues include community allegiance to the long-established coal industry, but also a deep attachment to unspoiled mountain terrain.
Activist Jon Boone opposed the wind turbines on Garrett County’s Backbone Mountain, which he says spoil the wilderness without reducing the use of coal.
“They’ve taken Maryland’s most majestic mountain and turned it into a huge wind amusement arcade,” Boone said. “Imagine the furor if someone proposed putting those things on the Chesapeake Bay.”
Such arguments from opposition groups are sometimes dismissed as “NIMBY,” or “not in my backyard.” Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a pro-wind organization with a mission to address climate change, said that environmental concerns about western Maryland wind farms may have been exaggerated to help keep wind turbines out of local viewsheds.
“The problem with land-based windmills is that people live there, and a lot of people don’t like to look at them,” Tidwell said. “The reason we haven’t seen more land-based wind in the Bay watershed is not because of legitimate environmental concerns.”
Some state and federal agencies, though, have found both wildlife and viewshed concerns to be legitimate for public lands. In 2008, the O’Malley administration decided to prohibit windmills on public forest land in western Maryland. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has set such strict parameters for wind farms on its public lands that none have been proposed.
“Wind energy is not consistent with our primary mission,” Feaser said. “So much of our land is important bird land, and wind farms don’t make sense on an important migratory route for birds or bats.”
Maureen Hyzer, supervisor for the George Washington National Forest, which is located in Virginia and West Virginia, rejected a wind power proposal for the national forest because of environmental concerns, viewshed issues and the impact on visitor experience. In a letter to the developer, Hyzer wrote that “It would be difficult to say a tower over 400 feet in height overlooking the Shenandoah Valley is visually subordinate to the characteristic landscape.”
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is concerned about viewsheds, too. Its official policy states that the careful siting of wind farms is crucial to the Appalachian Trail experience.
Some rural residents are also concerned about the direct impact on humans from safety lights, low-level noise, and the flicker effect of sun behind turbine blades. The experience of these effects greatly depends on the geography of the specific site and design quality of the wind farm.
A study co-sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association found that sounds from wind turbines are intermittent and low-frequency, much like background noise in an average home. Some people may find the sounds annoying, but they pose no risk to human health. Advocates also point out that wind power should have nothing but a net positive effect on human health by preventing the emissions from coal-fired power plants.
This does little to assuage the concerns of people who believe that their quality of life, and possibly their property values, may be compromised.
Chris Bolgiano is a resident of the Shenandoah Valley where a wind farm had been proposed for her local mountain. She believes in renewable energy, but finds the trade-offs for ridge top wind in the mid-Atlantic highlands unacceptable. “We’re destroying too much for too little,” Bolgiano said.
Bolgiano said that offshore wind would provide more power, without as many conflicts to viewsheds, humans and wildlife.
Both government and industry recognize that offshore sites in the mid-Atlantic have much better wind resources than the mountains. No offshore wind turbines exist in the United States, but momentum is building.
Last November, the U.S. Department of the Interior launched a “Smart from the Start” program to define wind energy areas in the Atlantic and streamline their development. The department is also conducting a regional environmental assessment of offshore wind for the mid-Atlantic, including Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey.
Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding and Gamesa Technology Corp. recently opened an offshore wind technology center in Chesapeake, VA. A bill proposed in Maryland would require state utilities to purchase a portion of their energy from offshore wind projects for a 20-year period.
Ajax Eastman of the Maryland Conservation Council believes there is no such thing as a wise wind investment, onshore or offshore. “I’m an opponent of all of them,” Eastman said. “These things wouldn’t even be considered if it wasn’t for the enormous subsidies.”
Eastman said that modern technology makes nuclear power a better choice. “Nuclear power has better performance, better reliability, and takes up so little of the landscape. The cost to generate the equivalent in wind power would be enormous,” Eastman said.
Eastman is not alone in rejecting the basic wisdom of wind power. Many opposition groups question the extent to which wind will ever help to reduce the nation’s dependence on coal.
It’s a complicated argument, based on the fact that wind is variable. In the mid-Atlantic highlands, good winds don’t mesh well with market demand. Winds are strongest at night and in cooler months, when demand is low. They are weakest during the day and midsummer, when energy needs peak. Critics say the same is true for wind from offshore sources, although the falloff in power generation is not so steep.
As wind falls, other power sources must be tapped to compensate. Coal-fired power plants burn most effectively at a steady rate, rather than ramping up and down. As a result, some believe that wind power may make coal plants operate less effectively and even generate more emissions.
“Wind destabilizes the entire system,” Boone said. “As an energy source, it’s entirely dysfunctional.”
Others disagree. The U.S. Department of Energy reported that wind power was responsible for about 39 million metric tons of avoided emissions in 2009.
PJM Interconnection, the company that manages the flow of electricity to the mid-Atlantic grid, predicts that wind resources will increasingly offset carbon emissions by decreasing the need for new coal-fired facilities and reducing the use of existing ones.
Carbon emissions for the region decreased 7.5 percent between 2005 and 2009, but tracking the source of the decrease is hard. “It could be from a number of factors. Wind might be one of them,” said spokesperson Paula DuPont-Kidd.
Making wind power a productive part of the grid is complicated, but DuPont-Kidd said that both technology and creative marketing tools will help meet the challenge.
“We have wind as a resource, but it’s not at the best time of day that we can use it,” DuPont-Kidd said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t use it, but we’d like to optimize the way we use it. It’s a booming part of the business, with all sorts of new technology in development to store or use peak power in another way.”
Local governments throughout the mid-Atlantic region have been caught in the crossfire of dueling science and personal opinions. While states must give broad approval to energy projects, they conduct limited environmental reviews, if any, and have no jurisdiction over siting on private land.
As a result, local governments are left to weigh the site-specific merits of an industry with which they have little to no experience.
A 2007 study by the National Research Council found that most communities were unprepared for the job. In general, they lacked guidance and advance planning, with limited and varied involvement from state and federal agencies. The situation left “both developers and the public vulnerable to inconsistent requirements among proposed projects and among potential locations.”
“You need a means to balance interests within the review and you need mechanisms for meaningful participation. That’s hard,” said researcher Mary English. “Who should be consulted? How will the facility be monitored over time?”
Gauging cumulative impact is even more difficult. “A project with 40 turbines is one thing, but suppose you have several others close by?” English said. “It’s a big question that’s usually not addressed.”
Garrett County, MD, approved two wind farm proposals with almost no zoning that could influence the installation’s locations, size or setbacks. The county planning commission is now considering changes to local ordinances that would provide some protection for designated ridge lines.
Faced with a proposal in Tazewell County, VA, supervisors acted quickly to create rules that deterred the whole project. “They passed ordinances that basically banned the wind turbines,” said professor Buzz Belleville of the Appalachian School of Law. “The supervisors would have to grant a variance for a protected ridge line, which basically they designated as everything.”
Allegany County, MD, made a similar move by amending their zoning code for setbacks and spacing requirements that made a proposed wind project economically unviable.
From a legal perspective, Belleville forecasts trouble. States with renewable energy goals, some of which address wind specifically, must tussle with localities blocking the industry. “What’s going to happen if localities don’t go along with this? Who can trump whom?” Belleville asked.
Virginia legislators proposed a bill in early 2011 that would limit the ability of local governments to set ordinances for wind power if they conflicted with state policies. The original bill failed, and Virginians engaged in the wind power debate are waiting on the fate of its revision.
Kim Sandum of the Community Alliance for Preservation helped to create wind-related ordinances for Rockingham County, VA, which she feared would be wiped out by the proposed legislation.
“My fear continues to be that it will be a way for the state to say you have to do what we want you to do with wind energy,” Sandum said. “It’s a hypothetical issue for much of the state. From a distance, wind is a warm and fuzzy issue.”
Conservation organizations like the Audubon Society, Sierra Club and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy have been careful to balance their support for renewable energy with a desire for “well-sited” wind farms that consider multiple factors and avoid negative impacts.
Their choice to avoid sweeping judgments and react on a case-by-case basis indicates the complexity of the issue even among those most likely to endorse a relatively clean source of renewable energy.
“To say we know all we need to know is not even close to the truth,” said Manville, who is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Bird Management. “The challenge is whether we can have a consistent approach where wind energy is assessed and reviewed the same everywhere, on a level playing field. It’s clean, but is it yet green? I think the answer is, not yet.”
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