Last week, Xcel Energy Inc. scrapped its $400 million, 150-megawatt wind farm in North Dakota. The project didn’t fall prey to a bad economy or lack of financing. It instead was pecked to death by rare whooping cranes and other birds of a feather endangered by the whirling blades of wind turbines.
Wind power, the great green hope of alternative energy sources, is running “afowl” of wildlife advocates, including some in Oklahoma, who claim that the rapid rise of the industry threatens birds in the air and birds on the ground.
About 440,000 birds die annually in collisions with turbine blades. That’s 4.5 million fewer birds than the house cats kill in a year and far fewer than the number wiped out by other lethal forces linked to human activity. But that, says international avian rights activist Mark Duchamp, is beside the point. The mortality count “caused by wind farms and their power lines is new and additional.” (See dramatic mid-air collision at tulsaworld.com/dramaticvideo ).
Bird-smart wind energy
“We have been maintaining all along that if the wind industry doesn’t embrace bird-smart principles, the impacts can be very serious,” says Mike Parr, of the American Bird Conservancy, the nation’s largest bird conservation group. “These principles aren’t complicated. The industry needs to site wind farms away from endangered birds and high concentrations of migrants, do the proper monitoring before and after construction, and compensate and mitigate impacts.”
He expects bird deaths to reach into the millions when the industry installs 12 times more wind power as part of its target build-out by 2030. About 20,000 square miles of habitat might be lost in the build-out.
“With just a few reasonable accommodations,” Parr said, “we could realize the enormous green potential waiting to be fully tapped; we would be happy to work with industry toward that end.”
Issues go beyond bird mortality caused by turbines, including potential bird deaths due to power line collisions – a particular threat for species such as the endangered whooping crane and other large birds. A congressional committee is investigating whether nature and the wind industry can safely co-exist. Its findings could affect how Oklahoma alternative energy interests proceed in a state rich in wind and wildlife and hungry for the economic development that wind farms bring.
Middle ground might exist for the opposing forces. Wind companies and utilities in many areas restore habitat and locate turbines out of the bird flight paths. More technology is available that could deter some bird species from colliding with windmills.
Osage County debate
Already a controversy has taken flight in Osage County. Wind Capital Group of St. Louis and TradeWind Energy, a Kansas subsidiary of Italian wind conglomerate Enel, are proposing to build two wind farms west of Pawhuska and east of Shidler on privately owned parts of the tallgrass prairie, according to a story by Tulsa World correspondent Louise Red Corn.
The $300 million project is contingent on whether the companies can contract to sell the electricity to a utility company. If they can get off the ground, the wind farms would include 185 1.6 megawatt-turbines, each 426 feet tall. The Nature Conservancy opposes wind development at the proposed site, saying, according to Red Corn’s story, that the turbines would fragment the last unspoiled prairie in the U.S. and disrupt breeding areas for endangered species.
Battle lines are drawn between economic and property rights issues on one side and environmental and conservation issues on the other. The farms could mean up to $12,000 per turbine for ranchers who own land where wind towers would be erected. That’s a huge chunk of change if multiplied by 185 turbines, and the project would generate tax revenues. But the turbines would not bring any direct revenue for people living on the other side of the fence from the windmills, Bob Hamilton, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, told Red Corn.
Whether issues raised in Osage County take the same course as those in North Dakota is up in the air. Xcel Energy Inc. scuttled its project after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service voiced concerns about the potential harm to threatened birds. Uncertainty over the timing and the cost for mitigating the potential environmental impact killed the project.
Over the past 40 years threats to endangered species have led to stringent regulations and to some public and private projects being curtailed or altered. The spotted owl in Oregon, for instance, blocked logging in areas of the Pacific Northwest. Least tern nesting sites along the Arkansas River in Tulsa are protected.
Recently, NASA dropped plans to use wind to generate electricity for a Massachusetts flight facility after questions arose about windmills’ effects on bats and birds. In the final environmental plan, solar power was substituted for wind because of regulatory agencies’ comments on the turbines’ impact. Solar panels won’t be used, however, because of a 50-year payback period compared to eight years for wind.
Are all these shelved or altered projects, and all the government red tape, worth the cost of saving prairie chickens, piping plovers, bats, bald eagles, whooping cranes and owls?
Wildlife advocates argue they’re not on some quixotic quest – not tilting at windmills. The extinction of dozens, if not hundreds, of animal species by man’s encroachment over the years is powerful evidence that we must zealously protect endangered species.
We cannot, as one Internet blogger suggested, allow Darwin to just sort it out.
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