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Wind turbines can pose a threat to area birds

Like many states, Virginia will eventually be the site of wind energy development. Two projects have essentially been approved, one offshore and one in the mountains.

The recent drop in oil prices has temporarily halted these projects, but fossil fuel is a finite resource that is warming the planet, so we will eventually move on. Wind energy can be competitive with fossil fuel if it is developed on a huge scale, in the windiest spots, and near consumers. The mouth of the Chesapeake Bay is a prime location. Another area with lots of steady wind is the mountainous western part of the state.

Environmentalists instinctively like wind energy because it has no carbon output and thus is a step toward reducing the upheaval promised by global warming. The biggest objections have come from people trying to protect their scenic viewsheds.

he mudslides, forest fires, species extinctions, island nation refugees and shattered coastlines resulting from upcoming climate change will also threaten the view from most summer homes, so this dispute clearly should be settled on the side of wind energy.

But wind energy has another drawback that has not received enough attention. The blades and the 400-foot tall towers that support them kill birds in large numbers. While most birds avoid most wind turbines, there is the potential for tremendous future impacts on struggling bird populations. Because birds use wind for a free ride during migration, they tend to congregate in the exact places slated for wind energy development – mountain ridges and coasts.

No one really knows how many birds are killed, and the few studies that have been done indicate that the answer varies widely depending on location and timing. There is currently no proven deterrent for alerting birds or bats to the fact that a killer blade is whirring ahead of them.

Those concerned with sustainability must support wind energy, despite its threat to the viewshed. But a slow approach that includes funding for research into deterrents, and a business model that includes slowing energy generation during migration, can prevent this from being the straw that broke the back of already imperiled bird populations.

Imagine being a Northern Gannet migrating down the East Coast 100 years from now. What is the chance that just once in your long life you’d look away at the wrong moment and be shredded by one of the hundreds of thousands of turbines that are being dreamed up for the coastline?

The crude estimates for total bird mortality from current wind operations is in the low hundreds of thousands annually, a number that will rise with each new turbine. Is this intolerable? Considering that people keep letting their cats outside, where they kill more than a billion birds a year in North America, it seems likely that society will tolerate the additional deaths. But will the bird populations? Here’s an idea. If you support wind energy, you can offset future bird deaths by keeping your cat indoors and convincing both of your neighbors to do the same.

Dan Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at dacris@wm.edu.