By Greg Walcher
Friday, June 3, 2016
Wind energy continues to be controversial, which seems surprising. Most people rightly think of the wind as not only renewable, but free. However, the technology needed to turn that free and renewable resource into usable electricity is not free, and we continually learn more about its unintended impacts.
For 30 years energy companies, utilities, government researchers, and academics have been studying the harm wind turbines can do to birds, and working hard to develop different machines that will not kill so many. The first megawatt wind turbines (on California’s Altamont Pass) were fast-spinning propellers that many environmentalists nicknamed “Raptor-matics,” and “Condor Cuisinarts.” More modern turbines are much larger and turn much slower, generating power without looking like airplane props. Yet despite design improvements, wind generators still kill thousands of birds every year, including eagles and endangered migratory birds.
Renewable energy advocates for some time thought solar energy might be a preferable alternative to wind, since it does not require moving parts. Then it turned out that the giant solar towers built in the Mojave Desert, surrounded by an array of mirrors, actually kill birds, too. Several months ago in this space I wrote about how the light from those installations attract millions of bugs that attract birds, which can literally be fried in midair — in much the same way that young boys fry ants with a magnifying glass. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is actively investigating the problem, so such solar installations may not become the preferred alternative to wind after all.
The deaths of thousands of birds was one reason energy companies began developing off-shore wind farms, often miles away from land. But it turns out that offshore wind farms may also cause collateral damage, in a big way. Conservation groups are now discovering that these giant wind machines may have a devastating effect on marine mammals, especially whales.
These are not your grandfather’s windmills, but huge 8-megawatt turbines that rise 650 feet above the water, with rotating blades more than 500 feet in diameter. Such gigantic rotors create pulsating sounds well known to anyone who lives near them on land. They can attract bats as far as nine miles offshore, and the noise travels through the water, as well as the air.
Near the world’s largest concentration of offshore wind farms (in the North Sea and English Channel), researchers have documented dozens of beached whales — and are reaching alarming conclusions about the relationship between whale deaths and wind farms. They cite ample evidence that noise from the machines interferes with whale communication and navigation, sometimes with deadly results. In one month, 29 otherwise healthy sperm whales (an endangered species) were stranded and died on English, German and Dutch beaches.