Renewable Energy: Not Cheap, Not “Green” (1997) – Part 4

August 27, 1997
by Robert L. Bradley Jr.

The “Avian Mortality” Problem

The universal rationale for the massive public commitment to wind power is that it is environmentally benign. But wind power has at least one major environmental problem–the killing of bird populations–that has begun to cause serious concern among mainstream environmentalists.

Wind blades have killed thousands of birds in the United States and abroad in the last decade, including endangered species, which is a federal offense subject to criminal prosecution. [81] Although bird kills are not considered a problem by everyone, they are a problem for environmental groups that lobbied to put the laws on the books, made cost assessments for dead birds and other wildlife after the Valdez accident, and vilify petroleum extraction activity on the North Slope of Alaska as hazardous to wildlife. [82] Such groups as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society have criticized wind power’s effects on birds, but many eco-energy planners have ignored the problem in their devotion to wind power, in light of the limited number of acceptable alternatives.

There have been numerous mentions of the “avian mortality” problem in the wind-power literature (the Sierra Club labeled wind towers “the Cuisinarts of the air”). [83] An article in the March 29-April 4, 1995, issue of SF Weekly was particularly telling. The cover story in the San Francisco newspaper was no less than an exposé, written not by a free-market critic but by an author sympathetic to the environmental agenda.

The article concerns the world’s largest wind-power farm, the 625 MW Altamont Pass project, owned by independent developers with long-term purchase contracts with Pacific Gas and Electric. Some major points of the article follow. [84]

· “It now appears that windmills are annually killing thousands of birds worldwide [including] . . . red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, turkey vultures, assorted owls–and federally protected species like Aquila chrysaetos, the golden eagle. And it turns out that the Bay Area . . . is the windmill bird-death capital of America.”

· The National Audubon Society has called for a moratorium on new wind farms until the bird kill problem is solved, a position that the wind industry opposes.

· Some of the bird kills at Altamont Pass are a federal crime under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; killing bald eagles is also a crime under the Bald Eagle Protection Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering prosecution.

· Traditional environmental groups will not condemn wind, which they see as “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” They hope that the mortality is not too great and that current remediation efforts will succeed.

· “So intense has the windmill ‘avian mortality issue’ become in wind and wildlife circles, some fear for their jobs if they speak out; others fear for their research dollars, while the companies fear for their futures.”

· “How many dead birds equal a dead fish equals an oil spill?” asks the author. One wind energy expert responds, “The trade-offs aren’t easy–there aren’t any charts or formulas to guide you.”

· Environmentalists blocked a proposed wind farm in eastern Washington state because of the avian mortality problem.

· Federal money is going toward trying to find a solution to the bird kill problem, such as a study by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Author Amy Linn pointedly concludes her article:

By accepting the compromises of the real world and enthusiastically supporting the establishment of the wind industry, [environmentalists] entered the devil’s bargain that now prevents them from fighting the power companies. . . . Here in the almost wilds of Altamont Pass, the environmentalists and Kenetech have reached the point where solutions become problems–the point at which there is blood on the answer. [85]

The avian mortality problem of wind power is different from bird mortality due to stationary objects. Explained one study, “Wind farms have been documented to act as both bait and executioner–rodents taking shelter at the base of turbines multiply with the protection from raptors, while in turn their greater numbers attract more raptors to the farm.” [86]

“How many dead birds equal a dead fish equal an oil spill?” Ten thousand cumulative bird deaths [87] from 1,731 MW of installed U.S. capacity are the equivalent of 4.4 million bird deaths across the entire capacity of the U.S. electricity market (approximately 770 GW). A 20 percent share of U.S. capacity, a figure that the American Wind Energy Association forwarded some years ago in congressional hearings (see above), would equate to 880,000 cumulative bird deaths. Calculated on an average operating capacity basis, the number would rise severalfold. Not every potential wind farm would be an Altamont Pass, which was sited to be near existing transmission systems with little thought to bird activity, but the mortality-per-megawatt ratio of existing capacity should give pause.

A 1992 study commissioned by the CEC “conservatively” estimated that 39 golden eagles were being killed at Altamont Pass each year, a significant figure given a total population of 500 breeding pairs. [88] On a percentage basis, the mortality rate per year at Altamont Pass under the estimate is eight times greater than the bald eagle kill from the Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, and it recurs every year. [89]

American kestrels and red-tailed hawks also were considered at risk from Altamont Pass, according to the CEC study. Although those facts could be ignored by the pro-wind-power community, the National Audubon Society’s call for a moratorium on wind-power projects in bird-sensitive areas (a position spearheaded by Audubon’s San Francisco chapter) cannot. Jan Beyea, Audubon’s vice president for science policy, explained the national chapter’s stand:

We do not want to see the wrong types of wind turbines built, nor do we want to see them built in the wrong places. That is why I, and some Audubon chapters, have called for a moratorium on new wind developments in important bird areas. This has gotten some of our environmental friends worried and some in industry very angry. The National Audubon Society is not taking such a strong position because of a concern for individual bird kills; rather, we are concerned about possible impacts on populations in the decades ahead when wind turbines may be all over the country. [90]

Beyea elsewhere expressed specific concern about

golden eagles in California and the situation with the griffon vulture in Spain. We are also wondering what’s going to happen to cranes and ducks that migrate through Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas. [91]

With opposition from local Audubon chapters in Maine, Oregon, and Washington, Beyea warned that “wind-power could face the same fate as low-head hydro, which was dropped from the environmentalist agenda and from significant government support, even though, in fact, there may have been a middle ground that could have been located through dialogue.” [92]

The problem of avian mortality is not unique to the United States. Windpower Monthly reported that the largest wind farm in Europe was “wreaking havoc with the natural order of raptor life on two continents.” [93] The feature story added:

The data collected so far include telling photographs of decapitated vultures that collided with some of the site’s 269 wind turbines [that were] . . . either killed on impact or by electrocution on power cables. All of the species are protected by Spanish and European Union law. [94]

The From the Editor section of the same issue echoed the concerns of the National Audubon Society, explaining as follows its decision to show on its cover a full-color photograph of a bloody vulture cut in half by a windmill blade:

The decision to print this month’s cover was not taken lightly. It will have a significant impact, both on the world of wind power and elsewhere. . . . There is a real problem with bird deaths at Tarifa. It cannot be kept quiet and it will not go away of its own accord. . . . There are parallels between the problems of raptors in the Altamont Pass . . . and the Tarifa controversy. [95]

Proponents of wind power have argued that the bird death problem is being effectively addressed and should not slow the growth of the industry. Yet the problem, which has been studied since the mid-1970s, [96] continues unabated two decades later. [97] Like the claims that wind power will soon be economic, claims that (in the words of a U.S. Windpower representative) “we have almost met our objective of being an environmentally benign power resource” [98] ring hollow. Even if a technological breakthrough addressing bird kills is achieved (which is certainly possible), any incremental cost of using that technology would further worsen the competitive plight of wind power.

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