Green Energy: Can We Save the Planet and Save Birds?

Photograph by Greg Latza

Green Energy: Can We Save the Planet and Save Birds?

Wildlife-smart wind power may be as close as it gets to "green energy." But over vast swaths of America, the "smart" part is still more hot air than reality--especially when it comes to raptors.

By Ted Williams
Published: March-April 2014

"All wind projects, no matter where they are, kill birds. The questions become how many, what kinds, and is the mortality 'acceptable'?" So declares wind developer Christian Herter, president of the Massachusetts-based Linekin Bay Energy Company. If the word "acceptable" sounds provocative, bear in mind that a project Herter's company helped plan for northern Maine called Aroostook Wind Energy may well represent the best approach for the planet and, in the long run, for birds as well.

An accomplished birder himself, Herter also has impeccable credentials as an environmentalist. Before the wind-industry boom, he served as an environmental educator for the National Park Service, then a public affairs agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, then executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and finally Audubon's New England regional rep. So it's no surprise that Aroostook Wind Energy is wildlife-smart. Turbines will sit on old clearcuts near flat land already disturbed by potato farming. Of course birds reside and migrate throughout the footprint, but relatively few compared with, say, Wyoming's Shirley Basin or the northern Everglades or the Lake Erie Western Basin Important Bird Area or California's Tehachapi Mountains or the bald-eagle migration corridor in southeastern Minnesota--all places where new wind farms have been constructed or permitted.

For such a non-polluting energy source, wind has become surprisingly divisive within the environmental community. One faction ac- curately observes that "wind energy is not green if it is killing hundreds of thousands of birds" (to borrow the words of the American Bird Conservancy). Another, lasered in on climate change, shouts for more wind farms everywhere.

When I asked Herter how wind developers can serve both masters, he offered this: "There will always be some form of conflict between renewable-energy projects and wildlife, but that conflict can be minimized with a little common sense. Proper siting and sensitivity to the environment, both natural and human, should take precedence--and the balance should not be hard to find in most cases."

Advances in turbine technology have made bird- and bat-smart wind projects far more feasible than they were even a decade ago. (Bats, also killed by wind turbines, are already in desperate trouble from an alien fungal disease called white-nose syndrome.) "The new blades can operate at lower speeds because they're lighter," says Herter. "That means you're able to site them in places you couldn't before--flatter land with slower but more constant winds. You can get essentially the same output with less [wildlife] damage."

Given such improvements, wildlife advocates, who almost without exception are also wind-power advocates, are increasingly frustrated by the way heavily subsidized projects are getting plunked anywhere the wind blows, with scant attention to threats to wildlife or the value of wild, beautiful landscapes.

Renowned bird author and artist Kenn Kaufman submits an example of what he calls "a poster child for a turbine in the worst possible place," a project being built by the Ohio Air National Guard at Port Clinton, Ohio, in the Lake Erie Western Basin Important Bird Area. "It's in the middle of the densest bald-eagle nesting area in the Lower 48," he says. "And there are so many migratory birds there's a local festival in May called 'The Biggest Week in American Birding.' It brings in about $37 million a year to the local economy."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources objected to the Port Clinton project. But even after they pointed out more than 50 erroneous findings in the Ohio Air National Guard's environmental assessment, the Guard came back with a finding of "no significant impact." Audubon, Ducks Unlimited, the American Birding Association, the American Bird Conservancy, and most other environmental organizations in the state also protested the project. But Guard brass thumbed their noses at the state, the feds, and the public. At least they did until early this year.

What apparently changed their minds was an impending lawsuit by the American Bird Conservancy and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor, Ohio, for violation of the Endangered Species Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. On January 28 the Guard announced that it was canceling the Port Clinton wind farm.

 

The balance Herter speaks of seems unimportant to the Obama administration. The Interior Department has ceded responsibility to developers for tallying bird and bat use on planned sites and bird and bat mortality on completed projects. To acquire the in- formation, developers usually hire consulting firms, which have been known to bend data in the direction of revenue flow. Those consultants, in turn, use the data, which could be accurate, skewed, or bogus, to write environ- mental assessments and design wildlife-protection plans. These data are deemed "proprietary" and are routinely (and legally) withheld from the public, although in December 2013 the Fish and Wildlife Service stipulated that, at least for eagles, they must be released.

That stipulation, however, was part of a wind-farm plan in which the service extended its killing permits for eagles (otherwise protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act) from the standard five years to "up to 30 years," thereby squandering some of the motivation to develop new bird-safe technologies as well as the opportunity to require them. Expressing the collective outrage of wildlife advocates, Audubon CEO David Yarnold unloaded on the service in this statement to The New York Times: "A 30-year permit is like a blank check. It basically says you can go operate these wind turbines and kill as many eagles as happen to die." The service cites sundry "protections" in the new rule, such as five-year reviews, but they're bogus because funds to enforce them are lacking.

Eagles are just a highly visible symbol of the problem. Wind turbines also kill hundreds of other species, most protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, some by the Endangered Species Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has seen fit to refer just seven cases of unpermitted wind-farm bird deaths to the Justice Department, only one of which has been prosecuted. That prosecution was settled on November 22, 2013, when Duke Energy Renewables agreed to pay $1 million in fines and mitigation for killing golden eagles and other protected birds at two wind farms in east-central Wyoming. The belated federal action was welcomed by Audubon, but Mike Daulton, vice president of government relations, notes that "it takes more than one symbolic action to prove there is a real environmental cop on the beat."

While they haven't exactly been gagged, current Fish and Wildlife Service employees have been notably unwilling to share unpleasant facts about wind power with the media. But Dominic Domenici, who retired four years ago as special agent in charge of law enforcement for Wyoming and Montana, is less reticent. "After our prosecution of PacifiCorp [for electrocuting raptors with badly insulated transmission poles], power companies did an incredible job of retrofit- ting," he said. "Electric lines had been killing the hell out of raptors. We worked with companies that would work with us and aggravated ones that wouldn't. It took 20 years, but we kept at it. If you don't rattle your sabers, you'll never get anything done. Had the service done with electrocutions what it's doing with wind power, retrofitting would have never happened."

And former special agent Tim Eicher, who worked with Domenici, told me that at least until his retirement in late 2010, all wind cases had to go to Washington, D.C., for review before they could go to the Department of Jus- tice. "But even if a U.S. attorney wanted to prosecute, he has a hard time because Interior has so contaminated the case with statements about how great wind is. What it boils down to is that execution by carbon-based electricity is bad, but execution by the guillotine is okay."

 

The wind industry in Wyoming kills more golden eagles than in any other state with the possible exception of California. So I asked Brian Rutledge, director of Audubon Wyoming, for a wind-farm tour. Like all environmental leaders, Rutledge advocates for renewable energy and strict controls on carbon pollution. "I'm not anti-wind," he said, as he climbed into my rental truck in Laramie on the warm, gusty morning of De- cember 17, 2013. "I'm anti-carelessness. Instead of pursuing wind in a planned, cautious, scientific way, we're throwing ourselves into it like a fraternity rush."

Still, there are plenty of examples of wind development gone right, and Rutledge made a point of showing me one. At PacifiCorp's Seven Mile Hill Wind Farms, three miles northwest of Medicine Bow, I was reminded why Wyoming has more wind potential than any other state. Just to open the truck door I had to hit it with a body check, and when I gained the pavement I made a barely successful grab for my departing hat. Many wind farms are sited on ridge-tops where airflows accelerate but raptors congregate. Yet Seven Mile Hill's 79 turbines were close to town, near a landfill, and on flat, short-grass prairie that had been heavily grazed. "Wind power can be 'green' when it's on already degraded or mechanically disturbed lands," says Rutledge. He would have preferred tilled land here, but he allows that this site is about as good as it gets.

The greenness of wind energy is not a function of who builds the turbines or what kind of turbines are used, but simply where they go. In the wild, beautiful Shirley Basin south of Casper, we encountered the flip side of the wind-power story. Another PacifiCorp wind farm, the four-year-old Dun- lap 1 project, has damaged a complex ecosystem whose parts include or included greater sage-grouse, sagebrush sparrows, sage thrashers, elk, mule deer, pronghorns, black-footed ferrets, and sagebrush lizards, to mention just a few. Seventy-four 262-foot-high turbines with 253-foot rotor diameters (standard for newer wind farms and the same ones used at Seven Mile Hill) march across mixed-grass prairie, dwarf forests of sage, and saltbush flats blown out by eons of violent wind. And the company has won approval for 126 more.

A lot of the early research on greater sage-grouse was done here, but the birds, which won't tolerate potential raptor perches like turbines and power poles, have disappeared. Land disturbed by access roads attracts short-legged predators and rodents, which, in turn, attract raptors.

The only time Rutledge doesn't like to see raptors is when they're in the general vicinity of wind farms, and he was especially undone the day he and his son counted 24 golden eagles in the Shirley Basin. "If developers announced they were coming in here to build Wal-Marts, people would be up in arms," he says. "They don't understand what happens when we turn this kind of landscape into an energy-generation plant."

But Rutledge doesn't blame the industry. "Developers," he notes, "are at a terrible disadvantage. Everyone asks Audubon how many eagle deaths are too many. We turn to the feds and ask what's the eagle population and use of the area in question, and more often than not they don't know. So a bag limit on eagles gets set without the necessary information. Why are we planning how we're going to kill eagles instead of planning how not to kill them? Where's the research?"

While research is missing, lessons are not. None are more instructive than those provided by the bird- dicing wind farms strewn across Altamont Pass east of San Francisco in the late 1970s and 1980s. Sued by five Bay Area Audubon chapters, the companies agreed in 2010 to replace or remove some of the most hazardous turbines and idle others during peak migration. That has helped, but many of the roughly 4,000 turbines that remain are still raptor and passerine Cuisinarts. Doug Bell, wildlife program manager for East Bay Regional Park District (which manages 113,000 acres in 65 parks in and around Altamont Pass), places raptor deaths alone at "something like 2,000" a year. "Mortality monitoring," he says, "has gone in fits and starts, and not for all the turbines all the time, because there's not enough money in the world to do that."

Now, more than a quarter-century after the Altamont Pass wind farms went up, one might suppose that we're doing better. But when confronted by such lessons the industry and feds sometimes appear to suffer from attention deficit disorder. For example, in 2012 the Interior Department gave its blessing to the Power Company of Wyoming's 1,000-turbine wind farm-- the largest onshore farm on the continent--that will shortly sprout on private and federal land south of Sinclair and Rawlins. The agency is okay with the fact that, by its own estimate, the project will annually kill 46 to 64 golden eagles. That guess (and that's what it is) may well be low, but even if it's on the mark, that's 460 to 640 eagle deaths a decade. Might that be too many? As Rutledge observes, neither Interior nor any state or federal entity has bothered to find out.

A dose of Ritalin might have focused the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on the triangle between the Everglades, Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, and Lake Okeechobee, where Wind Capital Group planned a 124-turbine wind farm. Because the site is a conduit for migratory birds and home turf for such federally listed residents as Everglade snail kites and wood storks, Audubon Florida and the Fish and Wildlife Service urged the company to do three years of pre-construction monitoring. It refused. "The state DEP didn't even issue a notice of intent," said Audubon Florida's science coordinator, Paul Gray, in late November 2013. "They just issued the permit. They called it 'low to moderate risk.' We called it an all-out disaster. The permit just said Wind Capital had to send a bird- and bat-protection plan to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; it didn't even have to be approved."

Two days after I spoke with Gray the company pulled the plug on the project, but not because of any state or federal oversight. Wind Capital blames lack of financial support from the legislature. It can still sell the project, complete with permit, to another developer. "These things are like Jason, the Halloween horror-film slasher," says Gray. "They never completely die."

 

Certain environmental outfits, even otherwise thoughtful ones like the Union of Concerned Scientists, lecture that we shouldn't fret so much about bats and birds killed by wind turbines because many more die from, say, crashing into buildings or getting poisoned by pesticides. Even if that statistical gap were as steep as they imagine, and it almost surely is not, the argument is as mindless as opposing AIDS research because more people die from heart disease. And consider that the Obama administration has called for wind power to generate 20 percent of our electricity by 2030.

Some of the same environmental outfits argue that fixing global warming would be worth the cost in wildlife lost to wind power. Wildlife advocates wouldn't disagree. But even if America decides to abandon its all-you-can-eat energy diet, wind power can never be anything close to a fix. The American Wind Energy Association, the industry trade group, reports that the United States produces 5.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, while the nation's entire 2012 wind-generating capacity avoided 79.9 million metric tons. That's 1.48 percent.

A peer-reviewed study by ecologist and analyst K. Shawn Smallwood-- published in the March 2013 Wildlife Society Bulletin--places current annual bat morality from U.S. wind farms at 888,000 and bird mortality at 573,000 (including 83,000 raptor fatalities). Smallwood's annual mortality estimates are higher than others (including the Fish and Wildlife Service's bird estimate of 440,000) because he built models to compensate, at least partially, for such biases as an inability to detect carcasses taken by scavengers.

Still, as Smallwood himself acknowledges, he may have underestimated losses. For one thing, many turbines are not monitored regularly for bird kills and some not at all. For another, developers have a strong incentive to commission quick, casual searches. But even if searches were done regularly and carefully, it's doubtful that Smallwood's or any other models could compensate for evidence cleaned up by scavengers. I once participated in a bird-mortality workshop at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, in which the Fish and Wildlife Service scattered 100 road- and window-killed birds over six acres of grass, hardwoods, and corn stubble. Forty-eight hours later 15 of us, searching hard, in well-spaced lines, found only 11.

People with little understanding of birds--most wind developers, for example--haven't a clue about actual mortality. "The industry is talking about a few dead eagles," says former special agent Domenici. "That might be what they're finding with some re- ally bad searching, but that's darn sure not all they're killing. Even with valid attempts humans are really poor at finding pieces of passerines. I'd go out and glass those wind farms when the blades weren't turning, and I'd see definite blood and feather spots on damn near every turbine. There's not a lot left of a small bird that hits a blade turning at 150 miles per hour."

And the number of dead birds found depends a lot on who's doing the looking. "I know a guy who does maintenance on Midwestern wind farms," says Rutledge. "He tells me that during migration he wades through dead passerines. For a long time we thought bats were dying only from direct strikes. But even if they're not hit, the turbulence sucks their lungs out through their noses. I suspect something similar is happening to passerines."

The consultants hired by wind developers seem to have just as much difficulty documenting living birds and bats as dead ones. For example, in southeastern Minnesota--for $180 million, including $50 million in state and federal aid--National Wind planned a 50-turbine farm. Mr. Magoo might have found more bald eagle nests and bald eagle flight paths in the 32,000-acre footprint than the consultant, Westwood Professional Services. It managed to observe none of each until local citizens pointed out six active nests, all within a mile of the turbines and one within half a mile. (The Fish and Wildlife Service's voluntary guideline called for a two-mile setback from any eagle nest.) "When the leaves are off the trees you can see the nests from a mile and a half away," says Mary Hartman of Rochester, Minnesota. "And after we showed Westwood where to look, they observed 272 migrating eagles in a single day."

Hartman and her friend Kristi Rosenquist of Mazeppa, Minnesota, went on to tell me that when they took a Westwood biologist to one of the six eagle nests his firm had missed he expressed doubt that it was active, at which point two adult eagles landed on it, eliciting an "Oh shit!" "This nest," said Hartman, "is now and will forever be known as the 'Oh Shit Nest.' "

In October 2013, after a five-year battle that cost the citizens $200,000, the Minnesota Public Utilities Com- mission, surprised to hear about all the eagles, pulled the permit.

 

And a similar federal awakening may be under way--at least at BLM. Looking to keep greater sage-grouse off the Endangered Species List, the agency has been working with Audubon and other environmental organizations to revise management plans across the bird's 10-state range. So far most of the plans exclude future wind development in priority grouse habitat. "What BLM is doing for sage-grouse could be a great model," says Michael Hutchins, coordinator of the American Bird Conservancy's National Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign. "We have the information to decide where and where not to place wind farms. That information can be refined with techniques we have now, such as radar, high- definition photography, and satellite technology. I think the wind-energy companies would like that--it would be great for their publicity and would simplify the whole process."

Complicating and jeopardizing that process is the popular notion that wind power deserves something of a free pass when it comes to wildlife mortality. Such talk rankles one high-ranking Interior Department official who deals exclusively with wind power and requested anonymity. "The feeling that because it's 'green energy' it doesn't need to go through the same rigorous planning that other projects do is so fallible," the official says. "Good project planning is so important for every- thing related to wind energy. I think there really hasn't been scrutiny from the public to demand that with wind power. We can get some good projects up and running that don't have the significant impacts we're seeing, if people are willing to put effort into it."

The whole point is this: Everyone committed to the planet's health needs to promote wind power. At the same time, we all need to recognize, as wind developer Christian Herter reminds us, that some wildlife mortality is inevitable with even the best projects. But nothing will do more to harm to the industry than excusing or tolerating wildlife-stupid projects that give it a bad name.

This story originally ran in the March-April 2014 issue as "A Mighty Wind."

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine