The Tory party’s move to fall back in love with wind energy, despite its manifest disadvantages of cost, unreliability and inefficient use of land, is a death wish. They will soon rediscover just how unpopular wind “farms” (who thought up that euphemism for these open-air power stations, incidentally?) are with voters in rural constituencies. Opinion polls now persuade them that years of pro-wind propaganda have changed the public’s mind. I would not bet on it: these things may be popular in north London, but not in northern England.
Northumberland, where I live, thinly populated and windy, is especially blighted, being a big net exporter of electricity on windy days. A passionate, cross-party coalition of politicians from the county formed in the House of Lords – including a bishop – to object to the expansive vistas of the Cheviots and Bamburgh Castle being ruined by squadrons of spinning fans. I’ve rarely been involved in something so popular.
The objections are not just Nimbyism. Though few people enjoy having their view spoiled by structures that stand up to four times as tall as Nelson’s column, or the flicker their shadows cause on sunny days and the hum of their blades, the impact on nature is horrible.
The BBC, in one of its poorly named “comedy” slots, last week mocked people who complain that wind factories kill birds. Cats kill more birds than wind turbines, the programme said. Er, when was the last time your cat came home with a golden eagle, a bearded vulture or a red throated diver? Wind turbines, unlike cats, single out large, soaring, rare birds.
A rare lammergeier or bearded vulture released in Spain as part of a conservation project recently strayed to the Netherlands and met its end at a wind factory. All over the world, the largest and rarest eagles and vultures are dying in significant numbers as a result of turbines: in Australia, wedge-tailed eagles; in South Africa, Verreaux’s eagles; in Norway, sea eagles; in California, golden eagles.
One study found that, at a single windy spot in California, Altamont Pass, wind turbines were killing over 1,000 birds of prey per year, including more than 60 golden eagles. These are probably underestimates: there is no obligation on wind firms to count the birds they kill and they avoid doing so. It is left to volunteer conservationists to try to find the evidence.
Given that large birds of prey live at low densities, these deaths are vastly more significant to the bird populations in question than cat kills are to chaffinches and robins. A single wind power station in Spain, with just 32 turbines, has killed a vulture every three days since it began operating two years ago. The total Spanish population of griffon, cinereous, bearded and Egyptian vultures is in the low thousands.
Earlier this year, in a rare exception to a blanket exemption from prosecution granted by the Obama administration, a wind energy company in America was convicted by the federal government of breaking the law by killing at least 136 golden and bald eagles. On the Norwegian island of Smola, the number of sea eagle territories fell from 13 to five after the construction of a 68-turbine wind power station. Local extinction is a real possibility for these species. In India, the impact of wind turbines on birds of prey is so big that it reduced predatory attacks on ordinary birds by three quarters.
Even if eagles don’t die, they may be affected. Satellite tags attached to golden eagles released in the Monadhliath mountains in Scotland show the birds carefully avoiding the areas around wind factories. So they have less habitat and smaller populations.
This appears to be true of other birds, too: golden plover have been shown to avoid nesting near wind turbines, probably for the same reason they avoid nesting near trees, which can harbour predators. It’s similar at sea. Red-throated divers avoid offshore wind factories in the North Sea.
Then there is the impact on bats. North American studies estimate up to a million bats a year are killed by turbines. A German study concluded that each turbine kills an astonishing 70 bats in two months. You or I would be prosecuted for this.
The silence of most conservation charities on this topic is deafening: that wind firms subsidise such charities is presumably just a coincidence. Organisations that make a huge fuss if a farmer or a gamekeeper is even suspected of shooting a hawk shrug at the wind industry’s vastly greater slaughter. The RSPB’s former conservation director, Martin Harper, says the evidence shows “appropriately located wind farms have negligible impacts” on bird populations.
True, it’s possible to site wind turbines away from migration routes, and even to stop them spinning when tagged eagles approach, or during nights when bats are likely to be active. But this would lower the output of electricity, making them ever less economic.
Must we destroy this planet to save it?
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