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Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 6:41 EDT

Environmentalists Appear to Be Wind’s Biggest Enemy

February 18, 2008

Wind energy is one of the fastest growing industries in the nation, but it is facing sharp criticism from an unlikely source: environmental groups.

Colorado ranked second nationwide for completing wind farm projects during 2007, and reports show the Colorado projects bring an additional capacity of 776 megawatts of power to the state. Only Texas, with 1,618 megawatts of power, added more wind energy to the electric grid last year.

Colorado’s wind farm industry is growing in large part because of Amendment 37, which requires utility companies to get 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources during the next decade. Xcel, which powers Denver, buys all the wind power that is currently available in the state.

New installations increased by 45 percent last year, “shattering all previous records,” according to the American Wind Energy Association in its third quarter market report.

Supporters see wind power as the first clean, renewable, domestic power source to reach maturity. Many in the industry believe wind power will supply 20 percent of electric needs by 2020.

And for the first time, wind energy is competitive in cost with electricity from conventional sources because of advances in turbine design during the last 30 years. The American Wind Energy Association said that wind electricity sells for half the price of nuclear power and about the same as electricity form coal, oil and natural gas.

Affect on wildlife

But the advantages don’t mean that everyone appreciates — or supports — energy generated by wind farms. Some groups claim the wind farms are unsightly and some environmental groups are raising concerns about small birds, large raptors and bats — as well as hoofed animals like antelope and elk.

“We just don’t know what the long-term effects will be — and we don’t know what the difference will be on wildlife if there are a thousand turbines instead of just one,” said Ken Wilson, wildlife biologist and professor at Colorado State University.

Wilson isn’t fully opposed to wind farms, however.

“It really is an unknown right now — and some wind farms can be quite large,” he said. “As a wildlife biologist, I know you can change the habitat easily. But it’s a trade-off. There are many places to put wind farms without any damage. And you have to consider if it’s worth it to put the turbines in place — just in terms of clean energy.”

While wind energy seems benign, Wilson points out that water energy was once considered the cleanest energy of all — and then the effects on fish and other wildlife dependent on free-flowing rivers was recognized.

“And then, of course, you have the aesthetics,” he said. “Some people don’t want to look at a wind farm, just like many want to see white water in a canyon instead of a huge hydroelectric dam.”

Wilson said any change to the ecology and habitat can be a danger to wildlife.

“There is no simple little equation that says this energy is clean and harmless,” he said. “We just need more study done before we put these wind farms in places that could harm the wildlife.”

The hard part, he said, is slowing down the industry long enough to conduct the study.

“When you look at the amount of money going into alternative energy development, the cost to study the problem is a very small amount,” Wilson said. “But it will take a few years — and most people want the wind farms operable within a few years.

That certainly seems to be the case in Colorado, where three projects were completed last year.

Phil von Hake, spokesman for the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, said 2007 was the best year for wind power because of action taken by the governor and the legislature.

“Wind energy is getting cheaper — and the eastern plains are an excellent wind resource,” he said.

Enjoying the view

Von Hake believes that many of the concerns about aesthetics are unnecessary.

“They say they don’t like the looks of the wind turbines, I always ask them if they prefer the look of coal plants belching smoke into the air,” he said. “That argument really is starting to die down.”

He points to a wind farm in Lamar that provides 163 megawatts of energy. The farm was completed a few years ago and has become quite a tourist attraction, he said.

“People are driving out to see it,” he said. “There really aren’t any complaints about the way it looks. The wind farm took one of those small eastern plains towns and created a new industry for it.”

Prominent environmentalists around the country have come out against wind farms, including Robert Kennedy Jr., a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Kennedy is a vocal opponent of a wind farm project in Nantucket Sound.

Many in the industry claim that opponents are not environmentalists, but special-interest groups in favor of coal that merely position themselves as environmentalist. Those corporate- funded think tanks, such as the Washington Legal Foundation and the Heartland Institute, are supporters of coal as the main source of the nation’s electricity.

And some groups are coming out in favor of wind power, like the California Audubon Society — who held a conference about wind power, which showed ways to reduce the impact and “general agreement about the need to develop statewide guidelines for the siting, operating and migration of wind power to reduce its impacts on birds and bats.”

Sky not falling

Concerns about migratory bird patterns and bat flyways are overblown, von Hake said. Fears of dropping property values also are unjustified.

“The new turbines aren’t as much of an attraction for the birds,” he said. “They know now not to put them in the middle of migration routes. And the turbines themselves don’t have grids or girders for the birds to sit on. I think those arguments are finished.”

But Wilson disagrees, saying that no one is really keeping track of the number of small birds that could fall prey to the sharp blades of a wind turbine.

“We just don’t know — and no one’s tracking it,” he said. “Small birds make easy food packets for animals and insects, so there’s no way of telling how many die each year.”

But wind has advantages — even over coal, he said. With the country’s train routes in need of serious repair, coal trains are getting more costly to run. And some trains have been delayed because repairs to rail lines were being made, he said.

“That all makes wind the right solution,” he said. “And more utility companies are taking notice of that. There’s a myth that the pubic is against wind. And they aren’t.”