Bird lovers cry ‘fowl’ over wind power

Published July 1, 2001

Environmentalist groups are being pitted against other environmentalist groups in a debate over one potential source of “clean” energy. Wind turbines, championed by some as a pollution-free energy source, are under attack by other environmentalists for killing thousands of birds each year.

“The dispute really heats up when the issue becomes killing of federally protected species, such as golden eagles in Altamont Pass in California,” explains Cathy Lawton, managing director of a consulting firm that specializes in technology issues, business disputes, and litigation. “Notwithstanding citizen protests and publicity, the killing continues and has not been prosecuted. The public asks why and demands accountability. The question, however, has gone unanswered.”

Lawton lives in West Bend, Wisconsin and became involved in wind energy in 1999, when she and her neighbors came together to oppose a wind energy facility planned for an area 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee, prized for its bird and wildlife habitat.

The wind turbine debate is not limited to the U.S. In early May, the Dutch government championed a new proposal to build 200 new wind turbines along a northern dam in the Netherlands. According to the government, the new turbines furthered the nation’s commitment to environmentally friendly energy production. The new machines would supplement turbines already in place, and would be part of a plan to make wind power the majority source of Dutch energy before the middle of the century.

However, Vogelbescherming, a Dutch bird protection group, filed a formal complaint against the turbine proposal. According to Vogelbescherming, eight million birds a year fly by the proposed turbine site. “At night and in poor weather the birds will see the windmills too late,” said spokesperson Hans Peeters.

Vogelbescherming reports that thousands of birds are annually sucked into the turbines that already exist and are sliced up into small pieces. The addition of 200 wind turbines at the new dam site would exacerbate an already undesirable situation, argues Vogelbescherming.

In America, the wind turbine debate is also picking up speed, as many environmentalists seek enhanced government subsidies for the capture of wind power. In response to the Bush administration’s recently announced national energy program and a summer of energy shortages in California, wind power is being billed as a clean energy alternative. However, not all environmentalists are supportive of more wind turbines.

“Wind energy developers simply do not seem to take the issue of bird mortality seriously,” said Lawton. “The industry ignored the issue altogether for almost a decade. In 1992, when confronted with publicity about the deaths of federally protected golden eagles in Altamont, however, the wind industry was finally forced to deal with the issue.”

Lawton named FPL Energy, a Florida-based firm, “the poster boy for the industry’s ‘greenwashed’ callousness.” The company currently operates wind farms in Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, Oregon and California. FPL Energy is siting hundreds of turbines in Altamont Pass, California, Lawton notes, where windmills have been killing federally protected golden eagles and other raptors for nearly 20 years. The company also proposes to site what it touts as the nation’s largest “wind farm” east of the Mississippi just outside Allenton, Wisconsin—in an area the Wisconsin Public Service Commission and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources have mapped as a wind energy “Constraint Zone” or “Exclusion Zone” because of its close proximity to highly valued bird and wildlife areas.

“FPL Energy has ignored this fact, among others, as well as the vigorous opposition of local residents,” said Lawton. “It has been pursuing this proposed but ill-advised windpower project for nearly three years now.”

Whether or not wind power becomes an integral part of America’s future energy supply may well depend on whether Americans are willing to sacrifice thousands of birds each year for other environmental concerns.

For more information . . .

on the potential of wind power, see “There’s too little power in the wind,” a report by consultant Glenn Scheede in the June issue of Environment & Climate News.

Cathy Lawton’s Town of Addison Preservation Group has a Web site with more information on the dangers wind turbines pose to birds; point your Web browser to