Wildlife & Wind Energy Conference

Wind power isn’t quite the unambiguously benign source of electricity that some have made it out to be—for example, the author of the article for Worldchanging. That’s our big takeaway from the Wildlife & Wind Energy Conference, hosted by the Geography Department of Kutztown University and organized by Donald S. Heintzelman. It was perhaps fitting that attendees encountered blustery weather conditions enroute to the venue, located in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in the Appalachian Mountains, not far from the renowned Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

The first surprising thing that I learned is how large a state-of-the-art wind turbine is. A typical wind turbine is rated at 1.5 MW, stands 70 meters tall, and its three blades span a diameter of approximately 50 meters. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that many consider a row of these turbines arranged along a ridgeline to be a blot on the landscape, although I find the monopole towers supporting three thin blades to be one of the more graceful engineered objects that you might encounter: certainly more attractive than a bristling microwave tower or spiderly powerline structure. The language we use to describe a wind generation facility has become politicized: while supporters popularize the term “wind farm,” cons favor “wind plant.” Finally, most troubling is that wind turbines pose a real threat to flying wildlife, primarily birds and bats. And hence the conference.

Unfortunately, the sessions appeared to be designed more to muster opposition to new wind projects in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the Appalachians than to entertain a wide spectrum of viewpoints. Two speakers from government were briefly heard, plus a last-minute replacement, out of more than two dozen speakers on the printed agenda, and no industry or trade association officials spoke. Q&A time was given short shrift. We heard from citizen scientists but no engineers.

And it’s too bad, because almost everyone agrees that not only is mortality from collisions with the turbines a serious problem, but also that there’s very little good science that’s been done to understand exactly how serious it is, and why. What’s worse, operators of controversial facilities like Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in West Virginia, after suffering bad publicity from reports of bat kills, have restricted access by researchers to their sites. We didn’t learn at this conference how wind turbine mortality differs from kills at stationary communications towers. We know something, but not a lot, about the different effects on migrating and foraging wildlife, on raptors, songbirds, and bats. We have some anecdotal evidence about the effects of weather: fog and low ceilings can exacerbate. Likewise, it was suggested that quiet-running, preferred by human neighbors, may pose more of a wildlife hazard. What research has been done into mortality is disputed: how do we know that field searchers have found all the carcasses before scavengers have?

More than one speaker struck a defiant NIMBY attitude, among them Laura Jackson of a Bedford County grassroots organization. Speakers cast longing looks at the development potential for Chesapeake Bay and offshore wind farms, but no one spoke about the possible effects on marine mammals, birds, and amphibians.

The most pragmatic notes were sounded by David Riposo, master’s candidate at the University of Maryland’s Marine, Estuarine, and Environmental Science Department, who cited Pacala and Socolow’s “stabilization wedges” concept, which concludes that wind power is but one of many measures that need to be taken to address looming climate change problems; and by Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy. The ABC hosted a two-day workshop in 2004, and has taken a qualified positive policy stance on wind power, and Fry’s remarks focused on mitigation and incremental improvements.

Also noteworthy was a last-minute speaker from the Government Accountability Office, who provided hard copies of a September, 2005 report that I haven’t finished digesting. She noted that a National Academy of Sciences report was due for publication in January, 2007. One of the points made by the GAO report, and amplified by other speakers, is that the federal government has a limited role in regulating wind power development. In many states, the burden of oversight falls to counties and municipalities.