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Catching the Wind
Alex Steffen, 12 Jan 05

This month, E magazine devotes a whole issue to the emergence of mainstream wind power. Not much here that will shock or surprise Worldchangers, but there are a lot of good statistics and examples and a few interesting new ideas.

"None of these projects have met with the kind of opposition that stalks the Cape Wind project, a planned $700 million development that would cover 26 square miles off Cape Cod. That wind farm, with General Electric turbines up to 40 stories tall, would surpass Denmark’s Horns Reef as the world’s largest.

The proposal has split the environmental community, drawing opposition from such powerful environmental allies as Robert Kennedy, Jr. “I’m a strong advocate of wind farms on the oceans and high seas,” says Kennedy. “But there are appropriate places for everything. We wouldn’t put one of these in Yosemite, and I think environmentalists are falling into a trap if they think the only wilderness areas worth preserving are in the Rocky Mountains or American West. The most important are the ones close to our cities, where the public has access to them. And Nantucket Sound is a wilderness, which people need to experience. I always get nervous when people talk about privatizing the commons. In this case, the benefits of the power extracted from Nantucket Sound are far outweighed by the other values that our communities derive from it.”

Writer Bill McKibben, however, argues in Orion that the criticisms amount to “small truths.” The bigger point is that Nantucket’s air contains 370 parts of carbon dioxide, up from 275 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution. “And if we keep burning coal and gas and oil, the scientific consensus is that by the latter part of the century the planet’s temperature will have risen five degrees Fahrenheit to a level higher than we’ve seen for 50 million years.” The choice, he writes, “is not between windmills and untouched nature, it’s between windmills and the destruction of the planet’s biology on a scale we can barely begin to imagine.”

(The use of this quote, though, should not be taken as an endorsement of some of the more radical statements windies are making these days, like Dave Roberts' Modest Proposal for dealing with bird-kills and windmills, who, noting a study showing that windmills killed 6,400 birds a year, says: "Let's say they lowballed things, they underestimated the number of turbines, underestimated the number of birds per turbine, and are sops to the wind industry. Let's double their number ... no, triple it.  No, quadruple! Let's say turbines kill 25,000 birds a year. According to the National Audubon Society, house cats kill 100,000,000 birds a year. So, much like one can offset one's carbon use by paying to plant trees, one can offset the impact of a wind turbine by tossing one's cat into its blades." Send your hate mail to him.)

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I dread the further loss of already rare scenic beauty as much as anyone, but the alternatives are either this or a new coal plant somewhere in New England. I'm sorry if someone is offended, but it is better to have something that will not foul the air and damage peoples' health as another coal plant would (especially if you are a poor urban dweller downwind from it).

Less than perfect scenery but with clean, fresh air and good health is preferable to perfect scenery that you can't enjoy because the air is smoky.

Posted by: Mindy Contrera on 12 Jan 05

The problem of windmills and birds is just beginning to be noticed and the Audubon Naturalist Society ( NOT the National Audubon Society ) has devoted an issue of their publication to the problem. The 6000 number might be closer to a "per windmill" number. Also, putting them on major migratory routes ( where the wind is strongest ) increases the kills. Also, not just birds, but major bat kills have been discovered recently near these. Both birds and bats help to keep the insect populations in balance. Also, was a COAL fired plant going to be built in New England? Most likely it would be built in the Mid West or South. Also, conservation in the form of increased insulation for houses would be a better use of the power-plant building funds: less money for the same net increase in power availability. There are many reasons to stop and think before building these, beyond the destruction of the view.

Posted by: Barry on 13 Jan 05

"There are many reasons to stop and think before building these, beyond the destruction of the view."
However, one of the fantastic things about wind farms is that they can be fairly easily disassembled. So not building them in the hope that some birds and bats might die, while fueling global warming (which will certainly kill many more) is ridiculous. If bat and bird numbers show a serious decline after erection then take it down and put them somewhere else. THEN use the fossil fuel thats been saved (if there's any left and if global warming's just a big invention by bleeding-heart liberals (good luck with that one!)).

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 13 Jan 05

today's utility-scale turbines are much larger and turn very slowly. along with proper siting based on bird observation, this has helped minimize bird kill.

wind turbines got their bird-killing reputation after several were installed in a high traffic bird path in california over a decade ago. they did not foresee the problem and have addressed it since. i think the cat comparison is useful to put the issue into perspective. afterall, the cat does not reduce our dependence on fossil fuels... yet. that claim of 6000 per turbine is downright absurd. in addition to cats, we could also study how many birds are killed by highrise glass towers, plastic bags, automobiles, oil spills or wars in iraq. in the end, wind turbines have a net positive impact on ecology. the only honest argument against them is based on human aesthetics.

Posted by: hijiki on 13 Jan 05

I think windmills are beautiful. I'd like to see some windmills on a hill in my neighborhood.

The Avian Literature Database maintained by NREL is an excellent compilation of windmill/bird interaction research: See also the National Wind Coordinating Committee: and Western EcoSystems Technology:

According to these sources, the average wind turbine kills 2 birds per year. If we built a million turbines, it would kill the same number of birds as, say, radio towers by themselves do today. Generally, a turbine kills one bat per year (although some sites in the Appalachians have recorded much higher rates and researchers are investigating why the difference exists). Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good -- wind is one of our best energy options.

Bruce Sterling put it this way: "As for the bird problem, let's compare a forest of flying blades to giant broken oil tankers."

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 13 Jan 05

Said "modest proposal" can be found here:

Hatemail welcome.

Posted by: Dave Roberts on 13 Jan 05

The windmill industry is an industry like any other. The bottom line rules and scientific studies are not in their interests. I looked up the issue of the Audubon Naturalist. It is Oct. 2004, Vol.30 #8. I believe that their website is They describe the deceptive practices of the industry in pretending to study the problem, but instead follow the normal manner of faking it, doing a whitewash, etc. ( It is not a short article and I can't quote it here ). In terms of that casual remark of "2 birds killed per tower per year", that's the kind of flip remark that I'd expect from Rush Limbaugh. For example, the California Energy Commission, looking at the Altamont wind farm said that between 881 and 1300 raptors ( not just any birds ), including 75 to 116 Golden Eagles, are still killed EVERY YEAR there. Birds do matter. Outside of the pleasure that we get from seeing them, most of them help us greatly in maintaining some kind of balance with the insects. Bats? At the Mountaineer site, the present bat loss, if scaled up from the 44 turbines to the proposed 410 will cause 30,000 bat deaths per year. I'm sure that we'd all like to breath easier while driving our electric SUVs, but smashing the natural world in the process is not the best solution. Conservation anyone?? OK, maybe big industries can't make as much profit on that...

Posted by: Barry on 13 Jan 05

Issue all the insults you want, Barry, but that doesn't change the conclusions of the research papers. The average is 2 birds killed per windmill annually. For bats, even including the Appalachian kills, the observed average is 3 bats killed per windmill annually.

If there is any evidence the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is funding fradulent reseach, that evidence should be brought forward and publicized widely. The Audubon Naturalist article does not provide such evidence.

There are best practices for windpower that will minimize wildlife harms, and those practices should always be implemented. New research is increasing the knowledge base and will make windpower even safer than its already outstanding record nationally and globally.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 13 Jan 05

At windmills studied by naturalists, not funded by power companies, the numbers are vastly higher than 2/windmill. The average can always be brought down by dividing by ALL windmills as most have not been studied individually. I'm sure that mortality totals at offshore sites, in particular, would be difficult to determine and have probably never been attempted. I agree that there are improvements that can be made to the designs. The Audubon Naturalist article suggests eliminating guy wires and putting strobe lights ( not constant ones ) on all towers. Where can we find the data for this calculation of 2/tower?

Posted by: Barry on 14 Jan 05

barry, the altamont wind farm you mention is the very same one i brought up earlier. it was an early experiment in a relatively new technology... they didn't know enough to do bird studies prior to installing that particular wind farm and discovered how important that kind of research is. it has damned wind farm research for the past 20 years. clearly we've learned a lot from that and new wind farms perform avian research prior to building. it's a learning curve. yes, birds matter, but altamont is the ONLY wind farm to experience problems anywhere near this scale. i think the fact that you're so desperate as to base your argument on an anomaly shows that the bird-kill issue is over. i think it also demonstrates how powerful special interest (oil, nuclear, and coal) groups are when they can turn environmentally-concerned individuals against sustainable energy.

Posted by: hijiki on 14 Jan 05

This seems to be a very strange discussion that we're having on World Changing. I was told that I was insulting for saying that protecting birds and bats from large scale destruction was a Good Thing(tm), and that conservation was a good alternative. And then an ad hominem attack that I was a tool of the oil, nuclear and coal groups. Very strange. Anyway, I'll repeat my request for a source for that unbelievable claim of 2 bird kills per tower that they are leaning on. Moving on from the agreed upon tragedy at Altamont, I went back and reread the article that I've referred to. They discuss the report that Synergics Energy commissioned from Paul Kerlinger to study the problem, relative to a site in Garrett County, MD. Chandler Robbins, an internationally known avian expert reviewed that study and pointed out some real howlers: 1) The study was done over 2 days in mid-July and then concluded that there was no problem, including migration. If this isn't an area of your interest let me point out that migration wouldn't start for a month and peak for 1 1/2 to 2 months ( for passerines ). 2) Night migrants do not follow ridges ( not true ) 3) the effects of habitat fragmentation are not known ( not true ) and other such statements that were either false or were stated without proof. There is much more but it was a long article and we are just making "comments" here. Anyway, just because wind energy is cleaner than coal smoke and diesel fumes does not exempt it from scrutiny or the suggestion of better alternatives.

Posted by: Barry on 15 Jan 05

barry, the data is all over the place and easily accessible to anyone. try google. most results show lower than 2 kills per turbine per year (nowhere near your 6000 per). still, the impact is nothing compared to skyscrapers, power lines, radio towers, vehicles and oil spills.

you do have a point that it would be difficult to study bird kill when the turbines are in the ocean.

my 'attack' was not ad hominem as there is evidence that various power companies have in fact mobilized bird lovers against wind power by exploiting stories like altamont that do not represent the current state of wind power. they're protecting their bottom line, please don't help them.

Posted by: hijiki on 17 Jan 05

From googling for "bird kills" and "turbine":

This next is quoted from:

The US Fish and Wildlife Services gives bird kill rate estimates in Europe of up to 37 birds/turbine/year and bird kill estimates in USA at an average of 2.19 birds/turbine/year with raptor kill rates at an average of 0.033 raptors/turbine/year. The US Fish and Wildlife Service suggest these figures may be a considerable underestimate.

I don't doubt that the oily companies have been looking for friends wherever they can be found, but that doesn't mean that the argument is wrong. The fact is that, as I mentioned in an earlier example that I gave about the Mountaineer site, the power companies are using flawed "research" to bolster their position and much more research needs to be done to verify that chosen sites are not killing fields. And, yes, it matters, especially when there are good, ecological alternatives.

Posted by: barry on 17 Jan 05

"The US Fish and Wildlife Service suggest these figures may be a considerable underestimate."

Well, that's easy enough to disprove. You simply go to the US Fish and Wildlife Service website and see their estimate of bird kills from turbines, which is 33K annually (Avian Mortality Fact Sheet). There are 15K wind turbines in the U.S., which works out to 2.2 bird deaths per turbine.

The Avian Mortality Fact Sheet provides a clear overview of human-caused bird deaths. Wind turbines are responsible for 0.003% of the total -- at the most. And that doesn't even begin to count deaths caused by the biggest factor of all, loss of natural habitat.

Enough solid, credible reseach has accumulated over the years to allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to draft a detailed set of guidelines for turbine siting. The voluntary "Service Interim Guidance on Avoiding and Minimizing Wildlife Impacts from Wind Turbines" has been undergoing testing since 2003. Final guidelines will be developed after the comment period closes in July 2005.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on 18 Jan 05

Yes, I just saw that. However the problem is that the research has not been done and evidence, as I suggested coming from Chan Robbins, has indicated that the problem is much worse than the cumulative data available might indicate. The Fish and Wildlife Service also links to this:

And here are two paragraphs I copied from that document ( referring to the problem with ALL towers, communications towers included. Note that windmills are preferentially placed on major migration routes ):

We are further concerned that very little research has been done in the area of minimizing and or eliminating the causative factors in tower-induced mortalities, particularly in light of the fact that there has been evidence of substantial birdkills for many years.

We feel there is a very real threat that, given the necessary weather conditions, tower-induced mortality may already have reached levels that can have a noticeable effect on wild bird populations, and that given the projected increase in both numbers of towers and in the density of towers on major migration routes this problem can only become more serious.

Posted by: Barry on 19 Jan 05



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