Published Feb. 16, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Let’s rethink mega wind farm on behalf of birds, efficiency.”
Note: This column ran in the same edition as “Firm in California seeks to harness Wyoming’s wind,” by Ralph Vartabedian of the Los Angeles Times, about the Anschutz Corporation’s plans for the 500-square-mile ranch they bought south of Rawlins, Wyo., on which they plan to spread 1,000 turbines (the Chokecherry project) and build a 750-mile transmission line to take it all back to California. California environmentalists are not happy. Read his story here: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-wyoming-wind-20140209,0,3366359.story#axzz2tbMTmglR.
By Barb Gorges
David Yarnold is not happy.
The president of the National Audubon Society writes in the January/February issue of Audubon magazine that our country’s wind farms kill 573,000 birds, including 83,000 raptors.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act should be protecting most of those birds, he says.
It’s illegal to kill them without a permit, but the Interior Department has only enforced the law once, he says. Apparently, wind farms don’t have permits for all the birds killed.
A new federal rule allows wind companies to get 30-year permits. But to Yarnold, that represents too many birds, with no incentives to cut the number of deaths.
Wind energy is a great idea. It’s been used for centuries to propel boats, to grind grain, to pump water.
A structure for catching the wind can be erected wherever the power is needed, though a backup system is essential for windless days. People are working on more efficient battery systems.
But leave it to American ingenuity to take a simple idea and enlarge upon it, making it industrial sized, much like family farming morphed into industrial agriculture.
Wind energy is clean, producing no pollution except whatever manufacturing the components entails and maintenance requires. We need cleaner energy sources like wind since the traditional fuel-burning, power-producing businesses are reluctant to make their energy production cleaner. Never mind the climate change debate–we all have to breathe.
But wind energy has an Achilles heel. Developers want to site numerous turbines in the windiest places, which also attract birds. Collisions with the blades, the towers and the transmission lines kill birds and bats. Wind farms have mazes of roads running over habitat, forcing out wildlife.
Audubon suggests targeting development for areas that are already disturbed or developed, avoiding areas known to be dense with birds, such as the Prairie Pothole region, the Texas Gulf Coast, and the Northeast’s raptor migration bottlenecks.
If you don’t care about birds, I suppose you wouldn’t see any of this as a problem. But you should care. To sum up Basic Ecology 101, every living thing, including you, is connected to every other living thing. It’s hard to predict how a loss of birds may affect you. It could be as simple as insect populations getting out of control and decimating crops.
But there are other reasons to rethink the concept of the mega wind farm.
I am a fan of dispersed power production, placing it among the structures where we live and work. For instance, solar panels over every roof, providing extra roof insulation and hail protection. Solar panels over parking lots would keep cars and asphalt cool. Small windmills could be placed along every highway where power lines are already strung. What if we were to place constellations of pinwheels on the outer walls of a skyscraper to produce power for that building?
The advantage of disbursed power production is we don’t lose the power consumed by transporting it over long distances. Plus, any power outages would affect fewer people at a time.
OK, so every location in the country isn’t terribly windy, but as a descendent, and mother, of engineers, I think we can engineer our way to more efficient turbines. It’s happening already.
Last month, a story in this paper mentioned in passing that Ogin Inc. has invented a wind turbine with cowling, or shrouding as they are calling it. I went online to www.oginenergy.com to see what it was about.
Compare the old-style propeller-driven plane with the more efficient, more powerful jet engine enclosed by cowling. This new wind turbine design is the same thing. According to their information, “energy output is increased up to three times per unit of swept area.”
Ogin turbines are smaller, at 200 feet versus the current 500-foot tall turbines, so they can fit into already developed landscapes more easily. Because they are shorter and the tips of the blades are outlined by the shrouding, it is believed fewer birds would be killed.
Testing of this new design will be happening at the infamous Altamont Pass in California, where some years ago, biologists helped engineers change turbine tower designs from open lattice work into the smooth cylinders we know today—taking away perches for raptors which were otherwise unwittingly launching themselves into the blades.
There are vertical axis wind turbines, identical to the one in Cheyenne at the Children’s Village, which at only 30 feet tall, have far less impact visually and environmentally.
Vertical turbines would even be a good replacement in wind farms, says California Institute of Technology professor John Dabiri. Placing them close together improves their efficiency by a factor of 10, using a much smaller footprint per kilowatt of production than current, giant horizontal axis turbines we see. [http://www.caltech.edu/content/caltechs-unique-wind-projects-move-forward]
Ever since we first felt the wind pushing at our backs, we have been refining ways for it to aid us. The challenge is to make our design choices work for other species as well.