HARLINGEN – Generating electricity from the flowing winds that caress Texas from every direction began as a dream.
Now the state is by far the leading wind energy producer in the United States. Texas, with its 18,000 megawatts of annual wind-blown power, nearly triples second-ranking Iowa’s 6,212 megawatts.
Yet with all things, the growth of wind power and the vast turbine farms needed to generate electricity efficiently also bring a fair measure of unforeseen and unintended consequences.
Wind turbines are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds each year, mostly small, migrating songbirds.
Texas is among the leaders there, too.
A rough estimate – and sadly there is little hard data on avian mortality from wind turbines – indicates Texas wind farms are responsible for between 123,000 and 146,000 avian deaths a year.
Nationally, some estimates put avian mortality from hitting the spinning blades on wind turbines at more than 500,000 per year, although some dispute that figure as being too high.
“That’s a dilemma Audubon and the Sierra Club are in,” said Jim Chapman, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Lower Rio Grande Valley Group.
“They’re pushing for carbon-free energy really hard, and obviously wind is a big part of that, and to some degree they’re turning a blind eye to the slaughter that entails,” Chapman said of the bird deaths.
Chapman said, avian mortality rates notwithstanding, he also is a big supporter of alternatives to fossil fuel like wind power.
His problem with Texas wind farms, whether in far West Texas or closer to home in Cameron, Willacy and Kenedy counties, is the lack of state regulatory oversight as to where wind farms can be located, and how avian mortality is monitored.
“There are no precautions, there are no siting requirements, and not even a requirement that mortality on birds and bats needs to be collected and submitted,” Chapman said.
“I really feel Texas needs to do better with that,” he said.
To be fair, regulatory requirement or not, some of the wind farm fields which are sprouting along the Texas gulf coast have attempted to do pre-siting studies on potential impacts to wildlife, as well as post-construction studies.
Jim Sinclair, a life member of the Texas Ornithological Society and a birding guide, formed a company called Texas Environmental Studies and Analysis, or TXESA, to do just that.
While Sinclair concedes there is no regulatory requirement for such environmental studies in locating a wind farm, the realities of high finance dictated many wind farm wildcatters would pay for the research.
“Most of the developers had to get outside financing to build the projects, and financiers are pretty conservative people,” Sinclair said. “As a general rule, they want to send a letter to Texas Parks and Wildlife saying it isn’t expected to have a major impact on wildlife.”
TXESA performed studies for several big companies, both before a wind farm was sited and after. Those include the Peñascal wind farm in Kenedy County and Los Vientos in Willacy County.
Sinclair and his company, beginning in 2004, performed pre-construction surveys on 14 wind farm projects from Corpus Christi to Brownsville. Of those projects, he said seven were built, and they did post-construction studies on four of them.
He said his company recommended not proceeding with a proposed wind farm which would have abutted the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
“We told the developer don’t build a project here and they didn’t,” Sinclair said. “It shared a fence line with Laguna Atascosa.”
And that was just fine with Boyd Blihovde, the refuge manager, who said Laguna Atascosa is beginning to feel pressured by a lattice-work of nearby wind turbines.
“We’re slowly being surrounded by wind farms and that makes it difficult for birds that are migrating to drop right in to Laguna,” said Blihovde, who says he’s a big supporter of green energy, to the point of driving a Prius. “They have to fly a sort of gauntlet to get to Laguna, some of the species at least.”
Blihovde said refuge officials had informal contact with the developers of the wind farm project, and they voiced concerns about the impact construction and operation of the wind farm might have on the refuge’s endangered ocelots, as well as migratory birds which use the refuge as a layover area.
“There’s a concern because if we do get surrounded, and potentially that could happen, we feel we don’t have real strong data yet but we feel our bird populations and diversity could go down,” he added.
When it comes to wind farms perspective is sometimes difficult to achieve, especially when talking about dead songbirds.
Scientists, as is their wont, have a rather bloodless term for acceptable mortality rates and it’s called “biological significance.” It attempts to assess death rates of a species compared with overall population numbers and replacement by young birds.
Most migratory songbirds, called passerines, live from one to three years, and annual species-wide mortality rates for these birds range anywhere from 40 percent a year to 60 percent.
Flying thousands of miles twice a year takes a toll.
But when it comes to anthropogenic (human-caused) cases of avian deaths, wind turbines rank far below domestic cats which kill an estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds a year, communications towers with guy wires that kill 6.8 million a year, or cars and trucks, which kill an estimated 60 to 80 million birds annually.
“To put that in perspective, one night in Corpus Christi here several years ago there were 3,900 birds killed overnight flying into windows of the county courthouse,” Sinclair said. “That’s more than the Peñascal project killed in a whole year, so we need to keep these in perspective when we talk about mortality.”
Sinclair added that in talking about avian mortality due to wind turbines, it is advisable to look at the broader scope of different energy production methods and weigh the impact those activities may have on birds and other wildlife.
“For instance, fossil fuel activities, everything through construction and power generation, also cause a lot of deaths and that’s hard to quantify,” he said.
“At this point – I’m switching to environmentalist mode, because I really am – a properly sited and properly operated wind farm in my opinion is an acceptable risk to the avian community,” Sinclair said.
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