The idea of “green energy” is popular today, as it should be. It makes sense for us to find ways to produce power in non-polluting ways, from renewable sources, to protect the environment of our planet and to create a sustainable future. Most birders probably would agree with that.
One potential source of “green energy” is wind power. It’s an attractive idea: harnessing the wind to create electricity sounds like the cleanest, safest solution imaginable. Some people have even begun to use images of wind turbines to symbolize a new era of clean, green, responsible energy. But there’s one problem with this picture: tall structures with rapidly spinning blades represent a potential hazard, obviously, to things that fly. Any wind turbine put up anywhere is likely to kill a few birds, eventually.
If a turbine kills just a few birds, we may have to accept that as a necessary part of the cost of producing clean energy. After all, there are many, many human activities that cause some amount of bird mortality. But there are some places where the risk to birds and other wildlife is so great that wind turbines should be outlawed altogether.
Birders should be united on this issue. We should all agree that wind turbines should be kept out of key areas of bird habitat. But unfortunately, the birding community has been mostly silent on this subject. There is even argument and infighting within our community. And I know part of the reason: there are forces that are working actively to keep birders confused and ambivalent, to keep us from standing up and protecting the birds that we care about.
These forces of division all seem to be people who are paid by the wind power industry, but you can’t always tell who’s paying a given writer, so here’s an easier way to recognize them: they always compare wind turbines to other sources of mortality. They’ll admit that turbines kill some birds, but then they’ll immediately point out that more birds are killed by some other threats: roaming house cats, automobiles, window strikes. They’ll quote alarming statistics about the numbers of birds that succumb to these other killers, and they’ll slip in something about the benefits from the turbines (like, “that’s one bird killed for every 150 homes powered by wind energy,” or words to that effect). The underlying message is that wind turbines pose only a minor threat to birds relative to the benefits they bring, and that we birders would be silly to oppose these wonderful energy sources.
(You’ll also hear these promoters using the standard wind-industry fudge factor – lying by using incomplete statements. When they say that a particular wind plant produces “enough energy for 3,000 homes,” what they really mean is that under optimum conditions the plant can produce up to that amount – UNTIL THE WIND STOPS BLOWING. At that point, the plant produces ZERO energy, and other power sources have to take up the slack. In other words, on those hot, still afternoons when everyone’s air conditioner is running, or on those still, cold nights when everyone has the heat and lights cranked up, the power will still have to come from backup systems using coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar, or some other source. But the wind industry doesn’t want you to think about that.)
There is a lot of money involved in the wind power industry – not because of the expectation of big profits from all that electricity, but because the US government is offering huge subsidies and incentives. Corporations can come in and rake up some of those subsidies now, and if the turbines don’t produce as much electricity as predicted, the companies will have pocketed the cash already. With so much fast money at stake, it’s no wonder that wind-power boosters resort to propaganda campaigns to silence the opposition.
I have seen some of this up close, because I’m deeply involved in an effort to protect an important bird habitat from the encroachment of wind turbines. The Lake Erie Marsh Region of northwest Ohio is a stopover site for massive numbers of migrant songbirds, especially in spring – devotees call it “the Warbler Capital of the World,” with good reason. The region hosts huge concentrations of migrant waterfowl in late fall and early spring. Shorebirds stop here in great numbers – this is probably the most important stopover site for shorebirds in the inland region of the eastern US, between the Great Plains and the Atlantic Coast. And this region hosts the greatest density of nesting Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states. Considering all that, it seems eminently reasonable to suggest that wind turbines should be banned from a three-mile strip along the Lake Erie shoreline.
The Black Swamp Bird Observatory and other local groups have been pushing for protection of this narrow zone of vital bird habitat, posting an online petition that has garnered a fair number of signatures. So far, however, we’ve had little support from national or international organizations. Some are probably afraid to get involved, since the unthinking public may view any opposition to wind power as “anti-green.” We’ve even had some opposition from birding organizations – the very people who should be supporting our efforts. One popular birding magazine recently ran an article that was basically a love letter to the wind power industry. The article “went through the normal review process” before being published, but it was NOT reviewed by anyone who knew anything at all about the subject. Anyone with even rudimentary knowledge would have recognized the glaring bias in the piece, and would have recognized the damage that it would do to legitimate bird conservation efforts.
I’m not going to rehash that piece here, but I want to emphasize the point: Location Matters. Putting aside the potential benefits of wind, putting aside the dishonesty and exaggeration from the wind industry, there are some places where wind turbines should not be built because the risk to birds and other wildlife is just too great. Location Matters. Birders should stand together on this and insist that some places should be turbine-free. We should do our level best to stand as a unified front and keep wind turbines out of those locations that really matter to birdlife.
(Image at top of this post: Kirtland’s Warbler, pausing during spring migration at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, n.w. Ohio. To help in our efforts to protect this stopover habitat from the encroachment of wind turbines, consider signing this petition: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/924/482/794/ )