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Analysis: Is wind power for the birds?

By KRISTYN ECOCHARD, UPI Energy Correspondent   |   Dec. 22, 2006 at 5:11 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- Despite a recent endorsement from the National Audubon Society and improvements in bird-friendly technology, there is still some opposition to wind power.

In a recent article, John Flicker, president of the NAS, told the American Wind Energy Association that Audubon "strongly supports wind power as a clean alternative energy source." Research showing prospective effects of climate change on bird populations demonstrated a need for prevention, one approach being renewable energy. The NAS has acknowledged the possible advantages of wind, while still encouraging extensive preconstruction research; however organizations such as National Wind Watch and the Humane Society remain skeptical.

The Audubon statement came as a shock to some bird lovers since wind turbines kill between 2,300 and 6,600 birds every year, according to scientists at the Massachusetts Audubon. Since the implementation of wind farms in the 1970s, opponents say that bird and bat deaths, as well as noise pollution, environmental damage and poor aesthetics are not worth the potential benefits. Some even question the effectiveness of wind turbines in general.

"Those who argue in favor of wind usually say that they recognize local impact, that work should be done to protect endangered birds, and that wind power's positive impact on global warming trends will ultimately be good for birds," said Eric Rosenbloom, president of National Wind Watch. "That is completely unproven and projected effects of global warming on bird populations are unsubstantiated."

Urgency from the scientific community, however, has caused growth in the wind industry despite its link to bird and bat fatalities.

In a summary of collision rates compiled from several sources, including the AWEA, aside from Altamont Pass, bird impact has been relatively low.

"Less than one out of every 10,000 birds that dies from a human related cause is killed by a wind turbine," said Laurie Jodziewicz, communications and policy specialist for AWEA.

Precautions can still be taken to protect wildlife. Vertical axis turbines, which are close to commercialization, are a promising as a safer technology. Terra Moya Aqua Inc. has a model that has not been known to kill any birds or bats and is also quieter, though it isn't very widely used.

"To compete economically, right now the three blade horizontal axis turbine is the most cost-effective," Jodziewicz said.

Bat safety is another concern since a high mortality incident in West Virginia. The organizations involved in the Bat and Wind Energy Cooperative have pooled money to fund research and a deterrent device will be tested soon that creates a white noise simulating fog. Jodziewicz said it impairs the bats' echo location ability and they avoid the area.

Wind farms that have red flashing lights on the turbine blades or sites that were studied previous to construction had lower fatality rates than the others.

"Substantial and honest preconstruction surveys are key," Rosenbloom said. "Most developers do all that they can to deny there are implications and balk at doing adequate preconstruction research on migration patterns which are largely unknown because a lot of birds fly at night."

The Fish and Wildlife Service recommends a three-year preconstruction study to understand implications for animals. Rosenbloom suggested Vermont as an example where the siting process includes an automatic review done by the Agency of Natural Resources, independent from concerns of utilities. Federal or state mandates requiring review by an environmental agency would more than likely have a negative impact on the industry though, said Donald Scherer, member of the Ohio Wind Working Group.

"Enough is known now that some of that study would be a waste of expenditure but not necessarily a waste of time," he said. "For at least a year the wind still has to be studied and measured at a potential site, so bird flight patterns could be studied at the same time."

At Bowling Green State University, the ongoing Ohio Wind Project has been studying the placement, as well as the speed and size, of turbines. At the wind farm near BGSU, there have been no known cases of bird fatalities. The height at the bottoms of the blades is 111 feet and the trees in nearest nesting area are no higher than 80 feet so the birds fly under the turbine blades. Another site credential is that it's not on a migratory path; the closest one is 12 miles away, Scherer said.

"Wind is a source of energy which from a financial point of view can be competitive and it's clean and entirely renewable so you don't want to smudge the reputation of an excellent source of energy by over zealously pursuing it and ignoring the welfare of birds," Scherer said.

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(Comments to energy@upi.com)

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