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Cautious approach to wind energy

The capital is awash with advertisements promoting wind energy featuring predictable idyllic depictions of rolling green hills, trees and sunshine.

Certainly wind power may have an important part to play in the fight against climate change but what developers never mention are its adverse environmental impacts.

In the Republic of Korea in recent years, wind turbines have begun to sprout like mushrooms after rain, a gigantic unsightly litter on the landscape. The eight massive turbines of Yongheung energy park are visible from many miles away. Another greets visitors arriving from the airport via the Yongjeong bridge, with the message “Green Growth Korea”.

Both local governments and large corporations ― such as Hyundai, Doosan and Samsung ― are getting into the wind power game. The plan is for 500 turbines along the west coast and the government has already invested 10.2 trillion won to build the world’s largest wind farm off the south coast by 2016.

Wind farms in Europe and the U.S. were shown to have serious impacts on bird and bat populations in the 1970s. Studies at a single wind farm in Altamont Pass, Calif., revealed that it killed 4,700 wild birds annually, through collisions with turbine blades.

Among them were for example 70 golden eagles. Other studies have shown offshore wind farms as forming lethal barriers to migrating birds or causing high mortality when situated near breeding colonies. It is estimated that U.S. wind farms kill up to 275,000 birds per year and a similarly high number of bats ―vital to the health of the ecosystem due to the vast numbers of insects they consume.

Having recently extinguished biodiversity from the nation’s waterways via the four rivers “refurbishment” project, it appears the Korean green growth policy is poised to sterilize the skies as well by the erection of these giant eagle killers ― their massive rotating arms delivering a knockout blow to the country’s avifauna.

In the West there has been intensive research into wind energy and measuring its impact. The results are in: wind farms can be low-impact on bird populations, but only if located far from breeding colonies, outside of main migration corridors and away from landforms used by soaring birds.

In the U.K. and U.S. it is now illegal to build wind farms without a full environmental impact assessment that includes assessment of local diurnal and nocturnal bird activity. While some turbine designs are more bird-friendly than others, location remains the most significant factor.

A very major concern is that offshore islands in the Yellow Sea could be used for offshore wind energy production. Given that birds migrating over the sea use islands as re-fuelling stops and navigational aids, this could be devastating to the populations of some species.

Data gathered from these islands already show that the largest concentrations of low-flying birds were recorded in conditions of low visibility and unusually strong winds ― precisely when wind farms would be at their most dangerous to migrant bird flocks.

As Korea ventures into wind energy, it is vital that decisions on location be based on detailed research conducted at proposed sites before construction agreements are even made; that position and alignment take into account the distribution and sensitivity of seabird populations; that projects should take into consideration existing conservation obligations; that field research and the monitoring of any impact must continue during operation; that mitigation measures be introduced.

It is for these reasons that the Millennium Development Goals, and other conservation conventions aim to help Korea avoid irreparable mistakes and promote genuinely sustainable development. With the right strategy and planning safeguards, renewable energy targets can be met without significant detrimental effects on biodiversity or natural habitats.

The writer is a conservationist associated with various environmental organizations in Korea. He can be reached at gymnojene@yahoo.co.uk.