FromStop Ill Wind:
#3. Windplants are harmless to wildlife.
Untrue! The second leading cause of bird mortality in the nation is collisions with tall structures, particularly at night under conditions of poor visibility, when neotropical songbirds migrate twice annually (house cats, the leading cause, kill hundreds of millions annually). Some of these migrants are species with extremely vulnerable populations. During the day, thermal-riding raptors—hawks, falcons, and eagles—frequently fall victim to a wind turbine’s rotors. Experts such as Chandler S. Robbins, the dean of American ornithology, Michael Fry, of the American Bird Conservancy, Bridget Stutchbury, author of Silence of the Songbirds, and raptor specialist and author, Donald Heintzelman have expressed grave concern. But this concern is worldwide. At a recent conference in Italy, The Landscape Under Attack, scores of prominent European environments, such as Anna Giordano, who risked her life to preserve eagles, and Stefano Allaveno, a raptor specialist, spoke out against massive wind installations, citing their concern about increasing the risk of avian mortality with wind projects. And recently, Canadian environmentalist, Wayne Wegner, wrote a compelling article about his apprehensions.
Bats are greatly attracted to wind turbines, and are slaughtered wholesale. Nearly all bat scientists are alarmed, particularly Boston University’s Tom Kunz and Penn State’s Michael Gannon. Canadian researcher Erin Baerwald has uncovered provisional evidence that pressure changes near a turbine’s interior rotors caused the lungs of bats to explode, killing them instantly; many dead bats recovered at the base of wind turbines had no sign of external trauma, which would be the case with a collision. Instead, autopsies revealed internal damage to the lungs. Baerwald and others are now seeking conclusive evidence.
Nonetheless, the wind industry has touted the safety of its newer technology, maintaining that “monopole towers” and slower moving blades, which rotate no faster than 15 rpm, will not harm wildlife. However, huge 350-465 feet tall continuously lit wind turbines—with propeller blades so long that, at 15 rpm, they are moving at 170 miles per hour at their tips—and placed atop prominent ridges where large numbers of wildlife migrate—kill raptors, songbirds, and bats. Despite industry insistence this won’t happen, it already has. The annual body count at Altamont Pass, California has averaged nearly 5,000 bird deaths annually for 20 years, prompting several current lawsuits.
The wind industry response has been: “We need more time to study the problem”–while the turbines continue to run full bore. Indeed, when confronted with actual bodies on the ground, the industry argument morphs into a ten wrongs make a right scenario: “Cats and communication towers kill millions of bird and bats annually, and we don’t expect to kill that many.” When challenged about the appropriateness of this defense, the industry shifts gears once more: “The strategic need for clean energy justifies the tactical loss of some wildlife.”
When pressed hard, wind developers do admit their technology does kill. But the low bird and bat mortality ultimately acknowledged is extremely misleading if not outright disingenuous. Their “experts” often use an apples to orangutans comparison, giving statistics (only two or three birds killed per turbine) derived from turbines located in the western United States averaging about 150 feet tall and located in fields not known for significant avian migration—then stating these should be comparable to 400 foot turbines located on high forested ridges in areas well known as a major avian flyway. This kind of comparison is no basis for credible prediction, which is the purpose of scientific analysis.
Recent radar studies at proposed industrial windplant locations atop the mountains of Vermont and West Virginia demonstrate that hundreds of thousands of birds and bats fly low enough to collide with huge turbines, placing them at risk—especially birds in times of fog and low clouds. The taller the turbines, the larger the threat! In 2003, a developer-sponsored mortality study conducted over a several week period at a West Virginia windplant revealed that over 2,000 birds and bats had been killed during fall migration in that span. Independent experts have doubled that mortality figure to more than 4,000, concluding that the developer’s accounting methodology was insufficient.
While bird mortality has long been a concern, recent studies show that bat mortality may be an even greater problem, for reasons that are not entirely clear. But wind industry proponents press forward. To insure they receive all their tax credits, they continue to insist on post construction studies, a la Altamont Pass, vowing to work on resolving the “problem” in the future. Nonetheless, because of the documented experiences at Altamont and the recent discoveries made by radar analysis on ridgetop migratory routes, the industry has now begun to admit that windplant mortality could be very high. But not high enough to deter the building of windplants in risky areas, since, while the wildlife mortality at these sites may be significant, it is, according to the industry “not likely to threaten any species with extinction….”
Faced with the news that its wind turbines were killing thousands of bats at two windplants on Appalachian mountain ridgelines, Florida Power and Light, the owners of these windplants, reacted quickly. It barred scientists from pursuing follow-up work, pulled its $75,000 contribution from the research cooperative studying bat mortality and ended the doctoral work of a graduate student who had produced two years of data showing unusually high rates of bat death at the Pennsylvania and West Virginia sites. Although Florida Power and Light has pulled the plug on further research into avian and bat mortality on any of its properties, the company plans to construct hundreds more huge turbines in the mountainous areas.
But direct bird and bats kills from turbine collisions are not the only environmental threat. The montane forest fragmentation that would result from thousands of wind turbines will create hardship for a variety of wildlife and plants.
The scientific literature extensively documents concern for wildlife due to the harm such fragmentation will cause. Forest fragmentation has basically two components—the loss or reduction of habitat and the breaking of remaining habitat into smaller more isolated patches. Among the negative effects of fragmentation are: the elimination of some species due to chance events; an increase in the isolation among species populations due to their lessened ability to move about the landscape; reductions in local population sizes sometimes leading to local extinctions; and often wholesale disruptions of ecological processes that jeopardize survival for many species.
The clearing of wide corridors for hundreds of miles along the crests of forested mountain ridges in order to construct and operate utility-scale wind turbines will be a major contributor to forest fragmentation and loss of important forest interior habitat (which is defined as woods that are more than 100 meters from a clearing) within our region.
For the forest as a whole, roads—and maintenance of roads and infrastructure—are known to have a number of negative effects, ranging from barriers to immigration and emigration, opening new corridors that provide an avenue for native predators and competitors to enter the area, as well as creating new pathways fostering the spread of non-native, invasive species.
High elevation forest interiors offer the only habitat conditions for some species– and it is the type of habitat most easily destroyed by development. When the habitat disappears, so does the species.
Recently, the wind trade association, the American Wind Energy Association and Bat Conservation International have joined in research effort to find “solutions” to the wind/bat mortality problem. Contrary to public perception, this is a very problematic development. For a fee, Bat Conservation International—and, in the bird arena, Massachusetts Audubon, which has been angling to have its experts “study” the proposed Cape Wind project off Cape Cod–seem to have been co-opted as a public relations tool—giving the public the idea the industry is really concerned about protecting the environment. Nowhere, however, has any wind project has been halted or even modified because of the work of bird or bat experts. Quite the contrary!
There is little that captures the notion wind projects should not be built because there are too many unknown variables, using the precautionary principle as justification. Increasingly, bird and bat experts used as engineers or plumbers, tinkering away, hoping to discover something that might mitigate bat or avian mortality, project by project, but with no sense of consequence if they do not. Meanwhile, the wind trade association trots out for public consumption its “relationship” with the wildlife experts, confidant that those experts are one with the organization. And, if the experts do come up with a solution—wonderful! If they don’t, well, they—uh—tried…. And all the while, new wind projects are proposed in areas with a high likelihood of causing problems to bats and birds. The whole enterprise seems, well, unseemly.
Good public policy requires those who make claims about the safety of their product to substantiate those claims before introducing it into the environment, deferring to what Rachel Carson called the precautionary principle. Industry funded research should be highly suspect. Experts who work for the industry should submit their research and resulting conclusions for independent, peer-reviewed analysis. Good science insists upon conclusions that account for all the evidence, not selective pieces which fit the convenience of a developer’s point of view. Post construction studies are extremely risky and problematic—and more than a little self-serving. As is the case at Altamont Pass, who is going to shut down a $400 million capital facility once it is running, even if studies verify it kills significant wildlife?
Actually, a federal judge just did for a West Virginia project, Beech Ridge. However, Roger Titus’ injunction will likely be temporary, since he instructed the wind developer to seek an “incidental takings” permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife service, which, under that agency’s proposed new wind regulations, would allow wind projects, with a permit, to kill (take) even endangered species like the Indiana Bat, assuming the killing was not “intentional.”
It’s hard to see, though, how it could be otherwise, since wind projects will continue to be built along areas well known for sheltering both indigenous and migratory endangered species. Therefore, permitting the operation of industrial machinery even better known for its ability to attract and kill species that are threatened and endangered—and then saying that any subsequent deaths of those species caused by such machinery is “incidental”—should be an unacceptable level of Orwellian logic, even for the federal government.