The Red Clay Ramblers used to stop in Elkins on their way from North Carolina to anywhere else, and Tommy Thompson, who grew up near Charleston, would sing his haunting West Virginia ballad, “Where the Twisted Laurel Grows.” Our Ramblers LP is worn out and gone but I can still hear his plaintive growl. It came to my mind again in late October, when we joined a tour of the AES Laurel Mountain wind power project.
This whole endeavor of clearcutting and flattening our ridges, building wide roads, hauling up and erecting massive 40-story-tall machines—and giving companies tax grants, credits, and other encouragements to do it—all in the name of saving the planet from the damage we continue doing by producing kilowatts in other ways: well, it’s twisted, at best.
Add to the fundamentally twisted notion of destroying land in order to save it the further twist that earlier that month, the project had been the scene of a massive bird kill (see Peter Shoenfeld’s report in this issue, and more information below).
We met at the foot of the mountain in a giant tent fitted out with chairs, snacks, and a microphone for John Arose, the project’s general manager. He peppered us with numbers: 61 turbines, 1.6 megawatts apiece, generate 690 volts at 15 rpm. A transformer steps up that output to 34,500 volts, and at the substation on the property it is further stepped up and dispatched to the grid.
Variable pitch blades keep the rpm at 15—while the tips of the blades are moving up to 230 mph. The turbines begin to spin in a wind of about 6 mph; if the wind reaches 44 mph, they automatically stop, so as not to damage their gearboxes. The average wind speed on Laurel Mountain is 15 mph. It blows stronger in the winter than the summer. A graph of the facility’s monthly production looks like a cable drooping between January on one side and December on the other (both yield 13% of the annual total) to its low point in July and August (both 4% of the total).
The turbine hubs are 260 feet off the ground and the blade tips reach another 130 feet above that. Each blade weighs more than 7 tons. The towers support, altogether, 106 tons and rest on concrete bases 8 feet deep and 50 feet wide, containing 22 tons of rebar.
The Laurel Mountain site appealed to AES because of the wind—it is the first long ridge as the wind comes from the west—and the transmission lines that crossed it. AES bought 30 acres for their transformer, offices, and equipment shed, and leased 2000 acres from private owners. The project stretches over 12 miles in Randolph and Barbour counties. Of the $250 million initial investment, the federal government chipped in 30%.
The project’s most unusual feature is more accurately an independent project. That is the energy storage system, a complex of 16 battery containers housing 84,000 lithium-ion batteries apiece. The total storage capacity of the system is 32 megawatts. It wasn’t designed to even out the production of the turbines, which are subject to the vagaries of weather, but to deal with fluctuations in the grid. It puts out short bursts as required by the grid operator; its inputs come from the grid as well.
Thus, AES makes sales in three categories: (1) energy produced by the turbines; (2) battery capacity available for the separate “regulation market” that keeps the grid smooth and even; and (3) renewable energy credits for customers in states that have such requirements.
As the first tour group returned, those who had stayed to listen and ask questions and talk to each other stumbled outside in a numerical trance. Four yellow school buses! 50 passengers each! Two round trips: that’s 400 visitors! Not all the buses were full, but still—that’s a lot of folks gaping at turbines on a Saturday afternoon.
Our first stop on the top of the mountain was beneath an operating turbine. “You can open your windows and listen,” said our guide. Not much to hear there. The sound doesn’t drop straight down, rather it carries across the ridge and then descends with air currents, as we heard when we stopped again—and heard from local residents who live below Laurel Mountain. One neighbor thought it was like surf, low and constant. I would describe it as a deep rumbling plus a complaining note, as if the gears put up some resistance. And it pulsed, which was perhaps more annoying.
AES had shut off two turbines for us to examine. We stepped through a door with rounded edges and thick seals, as if we were entering a rocket. The ground floor had a narrow treadway around a humming metal box. I say “ground floor” because looking up we could see another metal floor above, and through its ladder-hole a third one.
The ladder went straight up for 230 feet. AES employs thirteen people, and most of them spend a lot of time on the ladders, checking and repairing the machinery in the hub. After reaching the hub they have to climb outside and open access panels. They must be in really good shape, I thought. Then our guide explained that the blue cords along the ladder that climbers tied into were not merely for safety—they had motors that lifted 80% of a climber’s weight. Another odd statistic.
After a look inside, we spent most of our time on the mountain staring at the views and trying to comprehend the hugeness of the project. From our vantage point a thicket of turbines ran north along the ridge (see John Terry’s aerial photo in the July Highlands Voice). Plainly visible to the northeast was the white picket line of the Mountaineer project on Backbone Mountain. To the northwest we could see the plume from a coal-fired power plant in Harrison County.
In the foreground, there was the road. Together with its grassy margins it was as wide as half of an Interstate highway, wider yet where the turbines stood, and bounded by pushed-away boulders and trees. One visitor was heard to call it “park-like.” I guess he meant, “thoroughly cleared.” Another visitor, a wildlife planner with the Division of Natural Resources, explained how bats are attracted to such clearings, where they can freely maneuver as they gobble up insects, and where many have been killed by barotrauma—that is, by the drop in atmospheric pressure near the blades.
For a few years now, wildlife biologists have been saying that wind power’s bird issue was really a bat issue, because as has been widely reported the turbines were killing so many bats. But this fall, we were reminded that migrating birds face a particular danger from ridgeline wind projects—specifically from their lights.
After the first “collision event” at a wind power facility, in May, 2003, the owners of the Mountaineer site pledged to keep the lights off at their substation unless employees were working there. Five and a half years later, there was a much larger bird kill at the nearby Tucker County High School (see the Voice, November 2008). After that, Allegheny Power took two steps: (1) it greatly reduced and altered the lighting at the school, and suggested that lights be turned off during the peak of bird migration; and (2) it gave a map of its substations and other facilities to the Division of Natural Resources and requested training on the problem for its designers and environmental staff.
Word still did not get around. On September 24 of this year, 59 birds and 2 bats were killed at NedPower’s Mount Storm installation. A week later, 484 birds were killed at the AES Laurel Mountain energy storage system and transformer, and the adjacent substation owned by First Energy, a transmission company. The connected facilities were illuminated by pole-mounted lamps. The storage system area had the most lights (eight 250-watt high pressure sodium lamps) and the most dead birds.
According to a wildlife biologist at Stantec Consulting Services, working on contract with AES, “Weather over the weekend of October 1 and 2 was inclement, with low cloud ceiling, thick fog, cold temperatures, and high winds. These conditions would likely have caused nocturnal migrants to fly closer to the ground, where they … became ‘trapped’ in the light at the [energy storage facility] and substation.” Birds flew into the storage buildings, the transformer structures, and the dozen or so 50-foot tall masts that supported wires, lights, and cameras.
Stantec recommended that the lights be turned off for the remainder of the bird migration season. Pathetically, it took three more days to turn off lights at the transformer and the substation, and a further five days to discover two wall-mounted lights on a building beside the battery facility. More birds died.
Since the pattern of fall migration has been well known for over a hundred years, and since the effect on migrating birds of excessive lighting on ridge tops on cold foggy nights has been seen so often and so recently – how can we explain the negligence of these companies and their consultants?
You can get an idea by reading comments filed last May by AES Laurel Mountain in response to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed Wind Energy Guidelines. AES stated flatly that it would not be able or willing to comply. The company wanted a phase-in period of at least 18 months for training—during which projects could race to completion free of guidance. It wanted to control all monitoring. It complained that adaptive management techniques should not be standard. Turning lights off during fall migration would be one example of adaptive management; so would shutting down at night during bird and/or bat migration periods (the Beech Ridge project in Greenbrier County is currently operating during daytime only between April 1 and November 15, by court order).
AES maintained the industry position that wind energy facilities kill, on average, two birds per turbine per year. In a few days in October, the Laurel Mountain facility killed four times that number.
A note on the blackpoll warbler: nearly two-thirds of the birds killed at AES Laurel Mountain belonged to this species. In fact, every bird kill in our highlands has included blackpoll warblers. Blackpolls have the longest-range migration of any warblers, typically nesting in boreal forests in Canada and flying out over the Atlantic all the way to South America. But some do mate as far south as Pennsylvania, where they have been designated an endangered species.
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