Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Winds of Death: Wind Energy In The United States (Not Farts)

This article will appear in the second issue of LOINS, available in early 2010. - Ed.

If you are reading this, I am going to make a great, brave leap of faith and assume……yes……that you are not stupid. I will gamble that you believe climate change is happening, that humanity is largely responsible for it, and that the consequences could be nothing short of catastrophic, on all fronts. Yadda yadda yadda…. old news, right? Sure. So I don’t need to bum you out by regurgitating tidbits of doom.

So welcome, boys and girls, to the much-hyped Green Revolution. Privileged people around the world are realizing that their way of life is not sustainable, and they want to do something about it…..as long as it’s convenient, of course. At the same time, governments and businesses alike are slowly realizing that oil, Texas Tea if you prefer, isn’t going to be around forever…..and so they are finally beginning to turn their heads towards hydrogen, solar, and yes, wind, as alternative sources of energy. The basis behind generating power from wind is simple; you get some behemoth-sized windmills that power an electric generator that is hooked up to a power grid. The wind blows, the rotors turn, and you have that oh so sweet clean, sustainable energy that all the girls want and all the guys want to be. Or something like that. Right?

I spent three months this year working with Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bat research and conservation. Our field site was a wind energy project in southwestern Pennsylvania, a pastoral part of the country largely dominated by farms and forests. The study’s hypothesis: If the speed at which the turbines’ rotors spin is slowed, there would be a significant reduction in the number of birds and bats that collide with the giant rotor blades. Our work consisted of walking transects under each turbine, searching for downed birds and bats. Some of the common species we found included Hoary Bat, Little Brown Bat, Tricolored Bat, Red Bat, Silver-haired Bat, Swainson’s Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo and a number of warblers. The carcasses could be pretty gruesome, with some being quite literally chopped in half. These poor things usually had a very pained expression frozen on their face, as you could imagine. Others, curiously all bats, would have no visible injuries to speak of. When bats fly into a narrow zone of air near where the rotor blades are spinning, the size and speed of the spinning rotor causes a change in air pressure. So when a bat flies into this area, it causes the bat’s arteries and veins to burst open. Subsequently, the bat falls to the ground and dies from internal bleeding.

The basic problem that we were dealing with is the fact that bats get absolutely hammered by wind turbines. No one is quite sure why. It seems they may actually be attracted to the spinning blades. Far more bats than birds, at least at our site, were found dead or injured. This trend is common across much of the eastern United States. At a 44-turbine site in West Virginia, a stunning 4,000 bats were estimated to have been killed in one year alone. These incredible numbers, coupled with a very low reproductive rate and the deadly white-nose syndrome that is plaguing many species, has absolutely brutal implications for bats in the eastern United States. Our site, with 23 turbines, is estimated to kill somewhere in the realm of 700 bats per year.

Of course, birds have been getting the dirty end of the shit-stick for decades now. It is estimated that between 500 million to 1 billion birds die in the U.S. from anthropogenic causes every year. That’s a lot of death folks……I can barely wrap my head around numbers like that. The most (in)famous wind energy project in the country is the Altamont Pass site, between the San Francisco Bay and the Central Valley. It is one of the oldest wind projects in the country, with almost 5,000 turbines. It is estimated to kill close to 5,000 birds a year, including roughly 1,300 raptors....and I’m sure a good number of bats meet their fate here as well. The grim statistics of the Altamont site are championed by anti-wind activists, because it clearly demonstrates the slaughter that can occur if the wrong site is chosen for wind development. However, of all American and Canadian sites that are being monitored, it is thought that this is far and away the biggest raptor-killer. In two years of monitoring at our Pennsylvania site, I think there was exactly one (1) raptor found. The variability of impacts between sites is vast.

So what’s the lesson here kids? Lets make this clear….wind farms are bad for wildlife. From direct mortality to habitat destruction to disturbance, there is no direct benefit to our winged brethren. Some grouse won’t even breed with turbines around….I guess they just don’t feel comfortable getting their lek on with turbines looming menacingly nearby.

Ostensibly, wind is clean, but all the blood that is spilled paints a very different picture from what the industry likes to say. But, and this is a big BUT, at this point it’s very difficult to predict what the impacts to wildlife will be at each specific site. There simply hasn’t been enough science done to predict how many raptors, birds, bats etc will receive The Big Chop at a particular place. In Pennsylvania, species like Grasshopper Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, Upland Sandpipers and Eastern Meadowlarks lived quite happily between the turbines all summer long.

This is not a total condemnation of the whole industry. The cumulative effect of producing clean energy can quite literally help save the world. And for some good news, the results from our study show that bird and bad fatalities can be substantially lowered with an insignificant loss of energy production. But there needs to be a balance between what casual environmentalists with their heads in the clouds think is going on, and what actually happens on the ground. At any rate, I do know that wind turbines should not be put up with reckless abandon and minimal review of the consequences (hellooooo, Texas). When all is said and done, wind energy is just like anything else…..if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.


  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/14/world/europe/14wind.html

  2. I can't believe you stayed away from "winds of change", I mean come on dude... a german rock band??? Scorpions rule!! That's right where my brain went, showing my age I suppose. You should have uploaded that song so it would play on your blog. That would have been sweet. I was a little disappointed it wasn't about farts.

    Too bad about the bats, I listened to a podcast about experiments with a devise that would deter them by making their echo-location inoperative around windmills. I think that would make them stay away. Experiment was the key word I think. Mean? Yes.. but not dead. I don't know about he birds.

    Use less energy!!

    My verification word is 'honcrat'... a weird new political party...

  3. Good article Zack....yeah I hadn't really been aware of that aspect of it.

    Mattbuddy.....for good or ill, I am completely unfamiliar with any Scorpions songs, although I feel they were pretty popular with the Thai demographic of the Midway crowd.

  4. I agree with the fact that there are concerns regarding the protection of birds, and hence measures must be taken to prevent the construction of wind farms along bird flight paths. Wind energy no doubt has great potential and places like Texas leads the United States in wind power generation. Visit http://www.pacificcresttrans.com/home.html for more on wind energy.