Wind turbines in the western U.S. (Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)
Wind energy is clean, but is it green if windmills chop up birds and bats? The country's top science panel says government agencies should take the environmental impacts of wind power more seriously. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports that some in Congress are ready to tilt at the windmills.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Regulators in Delaware recently gave preliminary approval to an offshore wind farm, another sign of the remarkable growth of wind power in the US. Electric power from wind has quadrupled in the past six years, and the business has set off a land rush for some of the best spots for wind towers. Wind power generates no pollution. But many people in communities from California to Cape Cod oppose it. They say the huge turbines not only ruin views, they can also harm birds and other wildlife. Now a panel of top scientists has weighed in on the wildlife impacts of wind power. And the report is giving momentum to the movement for more regulation of the high-flying industry.
Now here’s Living on Earth’s Jeff Young in Washington. Jeff?
YOUNG: Well Steve it’s instructive to take a quick look back at one of these wind power disputes that took place not far from Washington. Mountaineer Energy was the first project to reap the winds of West Virginia’s high ridges. And the local community was split. Some eagerly embraced a new source of energy and revenue. Others worried that migrating birds and mountain scenery would be lost. So the company scaled back the project and pledged to watch for birds. But just a few years into operation another problem popped up that no one saw coming: bats were being killed by the hundreds.
ARNETT: They found over 400 bodies and estimated between 14 hundred and four thousand bats had been killed at that site. That was orders of magnitude higher than any other facility had ever reported.
YOUNG: That’s Ed Arnett a biologist with Bat Conservation International. Arnett trained dogs to sniff out bat carcasses and tracked bats at night with thermal imaging. He thinks bats that roost in trees are attracted to the windmills, perhaps during mating or migrating seasons. Biologists then looked at other wind projects on forested ridges and found those, too, were killing lots of bats. The Mid Atlantic mountain ridges have some of the best wind in the region, and developers propose about a dozen wind farms there.
That has Arnett worried.
ARNETT: And when you think about a region or the entire North American continent with the expansion of wind and think about number of turbines and the fatalities rates, the cumulative impacts add up very quickly and become very alarming.
YOUNG: Wildlife officials have long wrestled with bird deaths at wind farms. Now they have bats to worry about too. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall says wildlife deaths are a black mark on a green industry.
HALL: Wind generated electrical energy is clean energy. However at this point we cannot say that wind energy is always green energy
YOUNG: That’s not the image the wind industry wants. Laurie Jodziewicz of the American Wind Energy Association says wind companies partnered with groups like bat conservation international, birders and state wildlife agencies to find solutions.
Jodziewicz: I think the industry is really interested in being a good environmental steward and wants to maintain and protect the green brand that we do have. And I think the steps we’re taking as a young industry we hope to set an example. But we’re still a small industry so we want to make sure we’re not doing things that unduly prohibits the industry from developing.
YOUNG: A recent congressional hearing on wind power and wildlife cast doubt on those voluntary efforts. The hearing’s title alone hinted at growing skepticism in Congress: it was called “Gone with the Wind.”
FRY: Unfortunately the collaborative efforts to address impacts of wind projects on birds have been a failure.
YOUNG: Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy testified about the wind industry’s reluctance to follow recommendations on where to place and how to operate windmills. The Fish and Wildlife Service is at work on a set of guidelines. Fry says they should be made mandatory.
FRY: This is the only energy sector that is unregulated. We would like green energy. But you really have to enforce some laws you have to put teeth in something or they’re not going to comply with anything.
YOUNG: The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hall says industry compliance is sketchy.
For example, when the bat deaths came to light at the Mountaineer facility. Scientists wanted to test turning off turbines at key times. The wind company refused. That wind farm is in West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan’s district. Mollohan is among a small but influential group of lawmakers who want to regulate wind power by making companies follow wildlife guidelines in order to receive tax credits.
MOLLOHAN: Wind energy developers are not going to voluntarily take all the steps
That are reasonably necessary for the protection of wildlife, they just aren’t gonna do it.
YOUNG: Mollohan urged the National Academy of Sciences to study the matter. The Academy’s report is the fullest to date on wind power’s energy contribution, environmental benefits and wildlife impacts. Here are some key findings: By the year 2020 wind could produce 7% of America’s electricity. That would offset about 5% of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Wind turbines kill somewhere between 20 and 37 thousand birds a year. That’s far fewer than are killed by buildings, cars, or cell towers. Even cats kill many more.
But the Academy warns that some bird and bat populations could be threatened as wind power expands. The report urges government agencies to take environmental impacts more seriously when planning wind projects. That planning depends on data, which the Academy also found lacking. Bat biologist Ed Arnett says scientists have a lot of work to do.
ARNETT: Decisions will have to be made on the compromise, quite frankly, what are we willing to give for this renewable energy source? How much habitat loss is acceptable, how many fatalities are acceptable? We just simply do not have enough information. We’re not there yet.
YOUNG: So, the answer, dare I say it Steve, is still blowin’ in the wind.
CURWOOD: [laughs] Ok, Jeff. Thanks for your report. But uh stick around for a moment. You know some of the local fights over wind projects can get pretty nasty. What do you think this National Academy report will mean for those local disputes?
YOUNG: I think both sides will find some ammo here, but I think the report really points to a way out of these not-in-my-backyard kind of disputes.
CURWOOD: How so?
YOUNG: With government providing a better system for making these decisions. I think in a lot of these disputes what we’ve seen is some opponents overstating the wildlife impacts when their real interest was protecting their view, protecting their property values. On the flip side: some wind supporters were hyping wind as this sort of cure-all for global warming while at the same time wearing blinders when it came to dead birds and dead bats. So, I think the take-home message of the academy report is we need to stop arguing simply yes or no on wind power and instead start talking more about how can we do this more responsibly? And likely that’s going to mean some kind of regulation.
CURWOOD: But don’t states and local governments already regulate wind power?
YOUNG: They do, they just don’t do a very good job of it. This study says those agencies they’re just not well equipped to assess wildlife impacts especially the cumulative impacts of a lot of wind farms in a small area. And one of the report’s authors says he thinks the wind companies could benefit here. Avoid costly lawsuits if we had a better way to honestly assess the tradeoffs and decide where windmills should go.
CURWOOD: Jeff just briefly what else is up on Capitol Hill regarding energy? I’m reading a lot about fuel efficiency standards for cars. What kind of traction is that getting?
YOUNG: Well, there’s a bill working its way through the Senate that could boost the miles per gallon their cars and trucks get, that’s a big deal. And there’s this interesting agreement in the works with companies that make light bulbs. If that goes through it could mean the end of the old incandescent bulbs that waste so much energy.
CURWOOD: We’ll be taking a closer look at both those issues in the coming weeks. Thanks, Jeff.
YOUNG: You’re welcome
CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent.
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