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Birds merit consideration from wind-farmers

Wind energy, for all its progress in recent decades, is still in its childhood – and to adults watching it grow, that can mean trouble. The noise and the unsightliness of the turbines might be mere nuisances, but the threat they pose to bird populations is what puts environmentalists in a quandary: Wind-spun electricity beats the coal-fired steam variety hands down, but what those propeller blades do to birds appears horrific.

In Tuesday’s New Mexican was a front-page story about golden eagles apparently falling victim to turbines in the Tehachapi Pass of California’s Coast Range. Those birds and other rare raptors either are more frequently killed by blades or their plight gets more attention for their majestic presence in our skies.

With wind-turbine numbers now above 35,000, estimates of their toll on birds large and small run from half a million, in federal officials’ and enviros’ view, to 150,000 that the wind-power lobby figures. Either way, that’s a lot of birds – even if the turbine-casualty count is small compared with that imposed by power lines, plate-glass windows, motor vehicles and cats; felines, though, tend to take on finches and other bird-feeder frequenters.

With government and industry pushing for a 20 percent wind-power share of our energy supply in the next 20 years, the need for strategic thinking grows clearer:

Location of wind farms, and spacing between the tall towers with their long blades, have got to be carefully considered. Bird-migration routes must be taken into account, either in determining where the turbines go or in turning them off at crucial times of migration. Today’s technology, you’d think, could produce some kind of radar or laser warning systems to regulate timing.

At the moment, federal rules protecting raptors and migrating birds are only optional to wind-farmers. That might have to change – depending on wind-generating companies’ willingness to upgrade their equipment.

On Altamont Pass in Northern California, along a major migratory route and home to 4,000 wind generators, that’s already happening: Pioneering companies are putting up monstrous turbine towers – 430 feet tall, with slow-moving blades turning high-gear generators, each one capable of powering 600 to 700 homes. For every new turbine, 23 old ones will come down.

New Mexico may be a beneficiary of the changes at Altamont: If, as wind-power people hope, the avian carnage goes down by 80 percent, local governments here could add provisions to wind-farm ordinances that state-of-the-art turbines be used – and demand further setbacks from ridgelines for such tall towers to diminish their imposing presence. Or private enterprise might act voluntarily.

There’s sure to be more progress on the wind-power front, as Public Service Company of New Mexico and other utilities seek not only more kilowatts for their bucks, but public-relations peace to boot. Birds would be the most deserving of beneficiaries.