Questions Plague Efforts to Grow Wind Power Use

Published January 1, 2008

Interest in wind power production seems to be on the rise, with recent numbers from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) predicting a continuing boost in wind power production thanks to increasing government subsidies and mandates.

AWEA’s third quarter market report on the industry, released November 7, paints a rosy future for the alternative energy source. The group finds “over 2,300 megawatts of new wind energy capacity” were generated in 2007, and “by the end of the year, the (AWEA) expect[ed] a total of over 4,000 megawatts to have been brought online.”

But a verdict on the long-term viability of wind as an energy source has yet to be reached, and no hope is in sight for the scores of birds and bats meeting grisly fates among the turning turbine blades.

Bird Deaths Documented

At the Altamont, California wind farm, an estimated “22,000 birds, including some 400 golden eagles, have collided with wind turbines or been electrocuted by power lines there, leading some to call the machines Cuisinarts of the air,” according to the Sierra Club’s Sierra magazine.

The death toll reported at Altamont and other wind farms has slowed the growth of wind energy nationwide. In Lake Township, Michigan, officials are considering “banning wind turbines within township boundaries, saying they disrupt the idyllic countryside and put wildlife at risk,” according to a report in the November 15 edition of The Detroit News. Township officials and residents strongly oppose DTE Energy’s plans to place 40-plus windmills on 4,300 acres in the township.

Concerns Swept Aside

Industry representatives say the concerns of wind energy opponents are exaggerated.

“I think so,” said AWEA’s assistant director for communication, Christine Real de Azua. “For birds, the data shows it’s overblown. That’s not to say there are not some impacts … but out of every 10,000 bird deaths from human causes, I think it’s less than one that is from a turbine.”

“[Industry officials] say the bird and bat problem has been solved,” said Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow specializing in energy and environment for the National Center for Policy Analysis.

But that’s not true, he said. “They’ve just made bigger turbines that turn slower. So they’re still whacking birds, just not as many.”

Blighted Landscapes

In addition to bird and bat deaths, plenty of other issues fuel widespread concern about wind power production.

“The reality is … you’re not just talking about a wind farm. You’re also talking about transmission lines,” said Shalini Vajjhala, Ph.D., a fellow with Resources for the Future specializing in energy issues. Vajjhala favors wind as a viable energy source, but he recognizes there are many obstacles, real or perceived, that must be overcome.

“There’s a list of usual suspects … who are opposed,” Vajjhala said, “and they generally talk about the negative aesthetics … and the damage to the ecosystems that comes by locating [the wind farm] on mountaintops or by water.”

Wisconsin Citizens Take Action

Wisconsin Independent Citizens Opposing Windturbine Sites (WINDCOWS), a grassroots group formed to fight the development of 49 windmills that would span three townships, decries a lot more than aesthetics.

The WINDCOWS Web site protests excessive wind turbine noise, flickering lights, toxic fluid leaks from generators, and well and groundwater contamination resulting from grading during construction and operation of the windmills.

Unreliable Source

Underlying all of those concerns is the question of whether wind power is a long-term energy alternative that can survive without taxpayer subsidies.

“The biggest problem is the unreliability,” said Ben Lieberman, a senior energy and environment policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation. “With wind power, you just don’t know when the wind will be blowing.”

Importantly, Lieberman noted, it’s on the hottest days–the time of greatest energy demand–when wind power is most likely to fail.

Cheryl Chumley ([email protected]) is a Virginia-based journalist who specializes in land-use issues.