Enviros tapdance around wind turbines’ bird kills

Published April 13, 2014

CHICAGO — When Mother Nature’s supposed greatest defenders call for replacing our reliable, affordable energy sources with unreliable, expensive sources that occupy more land and destroy more wildlife habitat, something might be afoot.

Perhaps it’s just a new brand of environmentalism … or maybe there’s another agenda at play.

Consider that humans have been trying to harness wind potential since ancient Persians developed the first known windmills in 500 A.D. Today, wind power provides barely 2 percent of our total energy.

Should we be exempting wind producers from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — once a tool enthusiastically wielded by environmentalists — to someday achieve a lofty vision of a wind-powered future?

A March 2013 study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin estimated as many as 573,000 birds were killed by land-based wind turbines in the United States in 2012. That figure includes 83,000 birds of prey, including protected birds such as eagles. About 900,000 bats were killed that year.

Among the most vocal apologists for such slaughter are the American Wind Energy Association and the Union of Concerned Scientists. They say it’s OK for wind turbines to kill birds and bats because other man-made structures, including tall buildings and power lines, do so.

But that’s an intellectually dishonest comparison. Buildings and power lines produce real economic value; wind farms rely on government subsidies to stay alive.

More interestingly, if wind lobbyists and their front groups want to deflect outrage toward power lines, they’re obviously betting you’re not looking at Texas, which recently began construction of 3,600 miles of new power lines to deliver power from the wind turbines in west Texas to the state’s major population centers.

Such is the immutable disadvantage of wind power: it’s dispersed, intermittent, and has low density. And it needs hundreds of thousands of acres to produce the same amount of energy as coal, natural gas, or nuclear can produce in just a few hundred.

Those extra thousands of acres of land have to come from somewhere. If wildlife populations and their habitat are going to have to take the hit, then I hardly see how wind power can be called “green.”

According to Clive Hambler, a species extinction expert at Oxford University, habitat loss is the single biggest cause of species extinction. He notes wind farms reduce habitat size and also lure birds — by first appearing to be attractive perching sites — before killing them.

Hambler calls windfarms a “population sink.”

The evidence is hard to evade, but that doesn’t stop wind lobbyists and their allies from trying. They claim many of the species whose populations are being ravaged by wind turbines are even more threatened by climate change, so we’re actually doing them a favor by constructing wind turbines.

Of course, many of these species already have survived many ice ages as well as greater sea level rises than we can expect in the next few centuries. And there’s just no way wind turbines, which after all require fossil fuel backup when the wind doesn’t blow, stand a chance at making a noticeable dent in global temperatures, especially with global coal demand projected to rise over the next four years.

Instead of gambling with special privileges and their unintended consequences, honest and rational environmentalists should advocate eliminating barriers to entry for all energy sources, eliminating subsidies to all energy sources and enforcing environmental law equally among all energy sources.

Ultimately, innovation and technology are our best weapons against environmental challenges. Under a system where everyone plays by the same rules, we lay the best groundwork to facilitate progress and avoid unintended consequences.

[First published in the Grand Forks Herald.]