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The failure of Big Wind

March 25, 2010
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I’ve been on record (for whatever that’s worth) of being generally disappointed with the Obama Administration’s environmental policy with regard to its fealty to global warming concerns at the expense of all others.  Not that I don’t think global climate change and fossil fuel dependence aren’t issues that deserve their fair share of political capital and attention, because they very clearly do, but the speed at which habitat conservation and endangered species protection have been sacrificed at the alter of “green” technology has been disheartening to say the least.  Chief among these are the concessions made to industrial wind and solar interests, which in many cases are the very same individuals involved in dirty fuel who have seen the writing on the wall and are looking to diversify.

photo from wikipedia

I should point out here that I’m I big supporter of increasing the influence of wind and passive solar power in our energy grid.  They’re the most economical of the renewable energy sources currently available in the United States and while they’re clearly not as harmful as conventional forms of energy like coal and natural gas, when employed on an industrial scale their impact is not inconsiderable especially with regard to the habitat that has to be destroyed to erect them and the effect the spinning blades have on flying birds.  Typically, for a project of this magnitude there are hoops one has to jump through that lay out the concerns along with a period for community input on the proposal.  This is to keep things all on the up and up, but it’s an easy system to job much to the eternal frustration of environmental groups.

Which is why it’s so frustrating to see the same procedural tricks employed by conventional extraction industries over the last 10 years being employed to derail any possible opposition to these wind farms. Take, for example, the proposed Frey Farm Landfill project in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  The proposed wind turbines would be placed on Turkey Hill, adjacent to the Lower Susquehanna River, part of which is notably an Audubon Important Bird Area. This area should also be familiar to birders as it’s just to the south of Hawk Mountain, where hundreds of thousands of migratory raptors funnel through passes in the Appalachians.  It should go without saying that there is scarcely a worse site in eastern North America for a wind farm.

So you would expect that the Environmental Assessment would take these conditions into account, but you’d be wrong.  The Department of Energy only considered the effect on two species, Bald Eagles and endangered Indiana Bats, and shockingly found no significant impact despite admitting that incidental take of Bald Eagles was expected and unavoidable.  It appears that the FONSI (finding of no significant impact) was done in an offhand manner without any sort of in-depth investigation on the impact on birds in the surrounding area.  That’s all well and good assuming the public comment period allows for sufficient time for interested parties to clarify their concerns, but for this project the EA was not advertised, and worse, the comment period was only 12 days long.  That’s it.  As a result, not a single comment was sent to the Department of Energy.  These are the tricks of those looking to pass controversial provisions under the radar, and the sad thing is that they succeeded.

So what to do now?  Especially since, according to Donald Heintzelman, member of the National Raptor Migratory Corridor Project working group,  proponents of the project have begun actively removing nest boxes of American Kestrels and Eastern Bluebirds to make room for the 200 ft high turbines at a time when cavity nesting birds need all the help they can get.  The horse is out of the barn as far as making comments, so what needs to be done is to send a brief e-mail to the Secretary of Energy to urge them to re-open the comment period for the proper amount of time so that reputable experts, as well as concerned members of the public, can make their voices heard.  It doesn’t have to be long, just a couple lines.

Honorable Steven Chu, Ph.D
Department of Energy
Washington, DC, USA
The.Secretary@hq.doe.gov

I’ve already done it, I encourage you to do so as well.  After all, the vast majority of raptors in the eastern part of our continent pass through this narrow part of Pennsylvania annually.  It affects all of us.

And when you can, urge wind and solar advocates to take advantage of resources already available to them before they build industrial scale farms on crucial habitat.  Wind and solar are far more effective and efficient when they’re closer to the grid.  That means passive solar on existing buildings and vertical wind generators on existing frameworks. These utility scale tri-propped turbines facilities have their own issues that need to be addressed carefully, and that means input from all sources.  And that takes longer than 12 days.

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5 Comments
  1. March 25, 2010 11:07 am

    Some really good points, Nate. There’s going to be someone crying over virtually any placement of wind turbines, but that one near Hawk Mountain seems like an especially terrible choice. I hope they can be moved. Though it seems unlikely now if they’re already taking down nestboxes.

    It baffles me that the huge opportunity to place solar on all those empty rooftops in urban centres hasn’t been taken advantage of. It seems like a no-brainer. In the same way that power companies offer fairly lucrative rates per kilowatt as an incentive for homeowners to install their own solar and feed it back into the grid, you’d think the government and power companies could team together to offer incentives to homeowners who allow the companies to ‘lease’ space on their roofs for solar panels to be placed as part of the grid.

    There is actually a non-profit in Toronto that operates kind of like that – leasing space from commercial buildings and installing panels on their flat roofs, and then using the income earned from the energy produced to lease more space and buy more panels, etc. It’s a break-even enterprise, but that’s not why they’re doing it so it doesn’t matter.

  2. Nate permalink*
    March 25, 2010 11:28 am

    @Seabrooke – You hit the nail on the head. It’s incredibly frustrating to me to see acres upon acres of big box store rooftops going to waste when they would be perfect for passive solar cells. It’s absolutely a missed opportunity.

    Wind is trickier, but most of the harmful effects to birds can be mitigated by turbines that aren’t of the tri-propped variety. I’m not sure why we aren’t looking for ways to maximize that potential either, because fixed turbines can only take advantage of wind moving in one direction while vertical turbines are more flexible.

    In both cases, there’s obviously something I’m missing I guess.

  3. Matt Yawney permalink
    March 25, 2010 2:37 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up. A letter has been sent!

  4. March 26, 2010 2:23 am

    Wind turbines are an obvious and dangerous threat to many migrating birds, as you said. But there’s another threat that seems to have gone under the radar for the last couple of years: cell phone towers. Not only are the tall towers themselves an issue, but the guy-wires that stabilize them are just as bad, if not worse! Especially during fall migration, when many birds are migrating during the night, guy-wires can be an invisible threat that kill countless thousands of migrants each year.

    As to Big Wind: Bald Eagles? Really? I’m pretty sure that wind turbines can be just as dangerous to many species of less recognizable birds (but no less important) than Bald Eagles. I guess it just goes to show that “Change” makes things different, but it doesn’t actually really change anything.

  5. Greg permalink
    March 28, 2010 12:44 am

    A serious but rarely discussed effect of wind turbines is the zone of biological inhibition that occurs as a result of the vibrations produced from wind turbines. This may very well be the nail in the coffin for many grassland bird species, as it shakes up the soil structure, producers, and the primary consumer level of the food chain in these regions. It could threaten far more species than the physical action of the blades, as it certainly is not limited to the birds, but all flora and fauna in the ecosystem. And, not limited to grassland/desert ecosystems either, but including other ecosystems (offshore, tundra, etc.) where wind technology is likely to be developed. Still lots of glitches to work out, with increasingly well thought-out environmental impact studies, but I, too, believe that we need to move away from fossil fuel dependence.

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