Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Posted by Bill of the Birds at 10:40 AM
Recently I was birding in Oklahoma and I was astounded at the number of wind farms—clusters of giant wind turbines—that I saw as I drove around the northwestern part of the Sooner State. This should not have surprised me. After all, Oooooooooklahoma is the state where "the wind comes sweepin' down the plain!" And as the photo above shows, wind-generated power has been around a long time.
No bird watcher would argue against the notion that our country—and the world at large—needs to begin harnessing other, greener forms of energy. In many ways wind power is as green as it gets. The wind blows, giant turbines are rotated at high speeds, and energy is generated by this motion. However the problems with wind energy center on these same giant turbines. Among the turbine-related issues are:
1. Though they look as though they are spinning languidly, the giant blades—especially the tips of the blades—are actually moving at several hundred miles per hour. Anything trying to move past these blades, but within their reach, is going to be hit by them. For a flying bird or a bat, this means instant death. We know that there is mortality at most wind turbine sites. And we know that some are far worse than others based upon their location relative to patterns of bird movement and migration.
2. And speaking of location, lesser prairie chickens and other grassland species of lekking gallinaceous birds (such as both greater and Gunnison sage-grouse) will leave areas when wind turbines are erected. In some cases this moves birds off lekking grounds where they (and their ancestors) have been doing courtship displays for decades if not a century or more. To a prairie chicken a wind turbine (or a cell tower or a string of high-tension power line towers) looks too much like a predator perch, so they leave the immediate area permanently. The same avoiding predators dispersal behavior would happen if we put a bunch of trees out on the prairie.
At their most virulent, the arguments for and against wind power sound like the daily animosity we hear on the political talk shows. Proponents of wind power—and especially the wind industry—are trying to wear the Green Energy badge with pride while largely ignoring the legitimate concerns about incidental deaths of birds and bats. Not ALL wind turbines are bad. But the ones that are bad can be REALLY bad. Still, we want to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, right?
On the other hand, anti-wind-power people sometimes seem to want to ban all forms of turbine-generated energy. Both sides cite statistics to back their claims (environmentalist/birders say towers kill millions of birds. The wind-energy industry counters that far more birds are killed by collisions with cars or window glass or by feral cats. Perhaps this is true, but why add another bird-killing element to our continent? In many states there is basically no regulation on the siting of wind farms, which means towers go up and start spinning before we know the impact on birds and wildlife.
So whom are we to believe?
What we really need is a wind turbine design that is efficient in generating energy but that is also safer for birds and bats. Furthermore we need some cooperative action among environmentalists, policy makers, and the wind industry to ensure that the impacts on birds and wildlife are considered when wind farms are being sited. Right now, it's all about location, location, location.
Until that day, all we can hope for is that the information gathering and the conversation continues. Perhaps we can find a happy medium.
We need wind-generated power. But we need it to be done right.
Here are some interesting links to sites covering this controversial topic.
The American Bird Conservancy's Wind Power Policy
Misconceptions About Bird Mortality and Wind Power:
How Turbine Design Can Reduce Bird Impacts
The USFWS Proposes Voluntary Guidelines to Avoid Bird Deaths
KQED-TV Feature on the Altamont Pass, California Wind Farms
Black Swamp Bird Observatory's Wind Energy Issues Page
Blog Post by Ted Eubanks on the Wind Energy Rush
The American Wind Energy Association
Laura Erickson's Blog Post About Testifying in Court Regarding Wind Power
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