But even bird conservationists favor wind over fossil fuels & nukes
CHEYENNE, Wyoming––Charged with killing at least 150 bald and golden eagles over the past decade at wind farms in eight states, the NextEra Energy subsidiary ESI Energy on April 5, 2022 pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
That case and many others pending against wind power producers are making passive solar photovoltaic panels on your rooftop look more and more like the best of options for birds and bats, to combat global warming, to power your car as soon as electric vehicle prices drop into the affordable transportation bracket, and to cut your household electricity costs here and now.
ANIMALS 24-7 testifies
Rooftop passive solar photovoltaic panels have no negative effects on birds and bats, the under sides may provide habitat to bank swallows, the top sides may provide perches to passerine species, and ANIMALS 24-7, a year after installing 22 photovoltaic panels on the roof of our 20-odd-year-old, 1,000-square-foot, all-electric manufactured home and office situated at the edge of the snowbelt, appears to have realized first-year energy cost reduction of 80% plus.
Back in Cheyenne, ESI Energy under the plea bargain agreement accepted fines totaling more than $8 million and pledged to spend up to $27 million to prevent future eagle deaths during five years on probation.
“That includes shutting down turbines at times when eagles are more likely to be present,” summarized Associated Press.
$29,623 per eagle
If eagles are killed anyway, ESI Energy will be fined $29,623 per eagle death.
That would cover photovoltaic panel installations sufficient to power three homes the size of ours.
Associated Press noted that the penalties against ESI Energy were assessed “amid a push by President Joe Biden for more renewable energy from wind, solar and other sources to help reduce climate changing emissions,” but also “amid a renewed commitment by federal wildlife officials under Biden to enforce protections for eagles and other birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, after criminal prosecutions were halted under former President Donald Trump.”
(See Law protects birds from poaching but not oil spills, says Trump administration.)
Ran through red lights
Continued Associated Press, “Companies historically have been able to avoid prosecution if they take steps to avoid bird deaths and seek permits for those that occur,” but ESI Energy “did not seek such a permit,” ignored warnings that wind farm designs would cause avoidable bird deaths, and “at times ignored advice from federal wildlife officials about how to minimize the deaths, according to court documents.”
Wind power circa 40 years ago was widely seen as the energy technology of the future, with low environmental impact and the then barely developed potential to replace fossil fuel-burning power plants and nuclear reactors.
But the first major “wind farm,” brought online at Altamont, California in 1981, within a few years was found to be killing birds and bats who flew into the paths of the turbine blades in appalling numbers. Eagles, hawks, owls, and other federally protected species were discovered to be most at risk.
Technological fix proved elusive
The problem was at first believed to have a relatively easy technological fix.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, in Richland, Washington, spent multi-millions of dollars trying to find that fix, investigating higher windmill towers, lower windmill towers, slower turbine blades, differently shaped blades, warning light patterns, and just about anything else anyone could think of.
Eventually wind turbine designs were developed that kill fewer birds and bats, but even a low toll can do irrecoverable harm to a rare or endangered species.
The Altamont, California wind farm in 2015 decommissioned 828 of the oldest wind turbines installed there, among more than 5,000, after the Golden Gate Audubon Society, several other Audubon Society chapters, and the San Francisco Bay Sierra Club chapter documented the deaths on site of at least 67 golden eagles, 80 American kestrels, 57 burrowing owls, and 172 red-tailed hawks in 10 years.
Wind still in the running
Only 23 state-of-the-art wind turbines, believed to be bird-friendly, were brought online in September 2021 to replace the energy output from 569 of the older wind turbines.
That progress in efficiency is enough to keep wind power in the race to replace fossil fuels, nuclear reactors, and even hydroelectric dams that obstruct salmon runs, but the numbers show passive solar via rooftop solar panels passing wind turbines as if they are standing still.
This is occurring even though wind energy output has continued to grow at 20% per year in the 21st century, provided 5% of total U.S. electricity generation by 2016, and is projected by the U.S. Department of Energy to provide 35% by 2050.
Solar electrical output, an almost negligible fraction of U.S. electrical generation as of 2000, is now producing almost more power than wind did a decade ago.
U.S. Department of Energy data on employment by energy sector tells the story.
As of 2016, 187,117 people were employed in electrical generation using fossil fuels, mostly operating power plants built decades ago.
Another 68,176 people were employed by nuclear power generation, almost all of them operating reactors built fifty years ago and longer.
Wind power generation employed 101,738 people, many of them working to expand capacity.
Passive solar generating via photovoltaics employed 373,807 people, practically all of them working to expand capacity.
Betting that wind power development is here to stay, regardless of impact on birds and bats, and especially on endangered species, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in February 2021 cut a deal with Avangrid Renewables to allow the construction of the 126-turbine Manzana Wind Power Project in the Tehachapi mountains of Kern County, California to proceed, on condition that Avangrid Renewables helps to fund a California condor captive breeding program.
Reported Louis Sahagún for the Los Angeles Times, “Roughly 100 captive-bred condors currently soar above the rugged Tehachapi range between the Mojave Desert and the fertile Central Valley. Although there has yet to be a documented case of a wind turbine injuring or killing a condor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says condor collisions are inevitable if the population continues to balloon.
“Now, federal wildlife authorities are taking the unprecedented and controversial step of helping a wind energy company breed the scavengers in captivity, so that they can replace any birds that are killed by the massive wind converters.”
“Tough to pinpoint a better alternative”
The deal requires Avangrid to contribute $527,000 over three years to the California condor captive breeding program at the Oregon Zoo.
Said American Bird Conservancy spokesperson Joel Merriman, “Having a conversation about raising condors — a poster child of the Endangered Species Act — to kill them is a hard pill to swallow. But it is also tough to pinpoint a better alternative,” since most other forms of electrical generating, rooftop passive solar excepted, are more environmentally destructive, with comparable effects on birds.
(See Ninth Circuit verdict for rooftop solar is huge for fish & fish-eating animals too.)
Staving off climate change
Added Garry George, clean energy director for the National Audubon Society, “If wind energy and the expanding condor population can’t get along, we’re not going to get very far in staving off catastrophic climate change or saving this magnificent creature from extinction.”
Mentioned Sahagún, “Today, the population of California condors is 518 individuals, including 181 in captivity and 337 soaring over Ventura and Kern counties, the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Grand Canyon and Baja California, Mexico. For the first time in half a century, some condors are roosting near Yosemite National Park.
“If the population continues to expand its range, scientists say, the species may be eligible for down-listing from its current critically endangered status to threatened within a few decades.”
Back in 2013, Sahagún recalled, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2013 issued an “incidental take” permit to the Terra-Gen Power wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains, meaning that Terra-Gen will not be prosecuted if their turbines accidentally kill a condor during the projected 30-year lifespan of the wind power development.
That deal required Terra-Gen Power to install a monitoring system designed to detect condors outfitted with radio transmitters, and to shut down the turbines if a condor approached.
The Center for Biological Diversity objected that only some of the California condors now in the wild have been outfitted with radio transmitters.
Mark Caponigro says
I’m surprised to read there was such extensive testing of wind turbines by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as is reported here. My usual source of environmental news focused on climate change and energy issues is Grist.org, also based in Washington, and I don’t recall they said anything about this testing. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, only that I never heard of it till now.
On the other hand, a few months ago Grist ran an article attacking American Bird Conservancy for an alleged policy of using fierce, well-funded tactics to stop the installation of wind turbines, and of publishing anti-wind propaganda of the sort that gets quoted by such people as Donald Trump. After surveying the ABC website, I found that they do indeed have a program, not particularly large from what I could gather, that examines wind turbine installations and studies them with regard to the safety of birds and other animals, leading sometimes to organized efforts to get poorly sited installations (e.g., placed in major flight paths) disallowed. At the same time, against what Grist reported, the ABC people are not “deniers” of the climate crisis, and state clearly that climate change is bringing ever greater pressure on many bird species, even if it is not nearly so big an emphasis as that has become for ABC’s rivals (right word?), the National Audubon Society.
The PNNL tests, I suspect, dealt exclusively with variations on the basic wind turbine format, viz. large wings around a relatively short horizontal axis. Did they examine any vertical-axis varieties? These are generally much smaller, having a rather narrow cylindrical shape, and seem quite unlikely to pose much threat to birds; if they’re developed in a serious way, they might turn out suitable for rooftop installation. Also, did they investigate whether better siting of turbines makes a difference? Better siting seems to be the focus of what the ABC people are trying to do.
One problem with solar panels, we are told, is that extracting some of the materials used to make them can have a not insignificant environmental cost. But I don’t know enough about the matter. Meanwhile, though, it was recently reported that there has been a promising development with geothermal energy. Geothermal always looked good in principle, but it was just a bit too expensive earlier, when renewable energy sources were first being unveiled, and wind and solar took off. If only the geothermal engineers can assure us their fracking-like methods won’t trigger earthquakes (they very well might, no less than current fracking for natural gas already does), then who knows, it may truly become the wave of the future — with presumably no danger to animals.
Merritt Clifton says
Grist magazine, founded in 1999, did not exist yet when the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory did most of their work on birdstrike and wind turbines, in the early-to-mid-1980s, some of which I reported about. I don’t recall whether Pacific Northwest National Laboratory looked at vertical axis wind turbines, but earlier, in the late 1970s, a major (for the time) wind laboratory in Hawksbury, Ontario, extensively tested the vertical axis approach & concluded that it could not approach the energy output that even then was accomplished with propeller-driven turbines. The vertical axis approach did show promise for increasing the energy output from low-head dams, but most of the low-head dams in eastern Canada and New England that the researchers hoped could be retrofitted with vertical axis turbines had been out of service for decades and were too badly deteriorated to make putting them back into electricity production feasible. I reported about this abortive project several times, as it initially looked promising, only to prove to be a dead end.
George Waters says
I don’t like mentioning this, but sadly I feel we have well passed the tipping point on sustainable living on our planet, as our human population continues to spiral upwards out of control, which in turn causes a further demand of natural resources, energy, food, development, which in turn leads to more deforestation, draining of wetlands, etc……
In 1979, as a freshman in high school – one of the cooler kids in class who was a Deadhead turned me on to the NO NUKES concert album, and I recall really being impressed more with the booklet that came with the two LP set than the actual music.
I was very fascinated by what I read regarding solar vs nuclear energy, and I can’t say with absolute certainity if wind was included – but I thought the small mention of Karen Silkwood was pretty alarming, and to this day I still research what may have happened to her.
Honestly, I wish I knew what the answer was – and it does not help that Michael Moore’s Plant of The Humans film came out when it did – because that got me questioning the whole cure vs the disease thing, which is worse…..
I do know this – when I check the stats here https://www.worldometers.info/ I thank God that I had the wisdom to never have any children, and consider that my greatest gift to our ecology, as I truly believe something has to be done about our population numbers, which were to me already far to great back over 40 years ago, and yes – I realize that is a very very unpopular opinion, but remember – that’s all it is, my opinion and choice.
As for solar living, I think it’s great in very rural areas – but for life in cities, especially big ones, I am not so sure – although it is possible I may think differently over time.
As for wind energy, again – rural areas I think it’s a good idea, but I’m against those huge farms – which also bring into question the best use for land [wind farm vs area to grow crops, etc….]
When I made the decision to leave Brooklyn NY for what I thought would be greener pastures in toxic Connecticut back in 1987, nothing could prepare me for how much things would change for the worse.
The amount of lost wildlands and wetlands in the name of progress [development] is beyond belief.
Now – the trend is to buy up wildlands and convert them into small solar farms, like – where are the animals supposed to go ??
This is a very very difficult but important topic of discussion.
I know there’s a lot of differing opinions as well, which is not necessarially a bad thing either – especially since life on our planet depends on the choices we make today – but one thing remains true – and that is we got to start getting things right now.
Thanks for publishing yet another thought provoking article.
Merritt Clifton says
The central fallacy in George Waters’ argument, above, is the notion that “our human population continues to spiral upwards out of control.” As of 2019 the United Nations Population Division projected that annual world population growth peaked at 2.1% in 1968, dropped to 1.1% during the next 50 years (an unparalleled rate of descent), and is likely to drop on down to 0.1% by 2100. This was before COVID-19 further thinned the global population by six million plus. The UN Population Division projected that the world human population, now about 8 billion, will stabilize circa 2100 at about 10.9 billion, with about two-thirds of the growth between now and then coming in Africa, the most sparsely populated and least industrially developed continent. Many other population modelers anticipate a much lower growth rate in Africa as education opportunities and economic prospects for women improve. Either way, gaining control of population growth has been perhaps the biggest environmental success story of our time. Achieving a transition to plant-based diets and to use of renewable energy sources are also goals within sight, based on present trends, especially within the industrialized world.
Concerning solar and wind potential, rooftop solar collection offers by far the greatest potential return relative to resources used, and more in cities than anywhere else. Even with existing off-the-shelf solar technology, any single-story building and most two-story houses with either flat or 50% south-facing roofs are potentially capable of powering their own heating, lighting, and water pumps. The most energy-efficient office buildings are also capable of powering the economic activity done inside them. Get this done and solar energy farming, essentially an idea of the past based on the notion of a centralized grid, would be redundant.
There is no conflict at all between using land for both wind turbines and growing crops, even orchard crops, as thousands of farmers around the world are already demonstrating. Many early wind farms, such as Altamont, made use of desert space that was unsuitable for either growing crops or grazing animals, but this has changed. It is now unusual to see a wind farm where the space below the turbines is not either in agricultural use or in use as wildlife habitat. Wind farms, for example, are ideal habitat for prairie dogs, a species otherwise in dire need of expansive habitat not used for either crops or grazing.
The notion that “The amount of lost wildlands and wetlands in the name of progress [development] is beyond belief,” especially in Connecticut, represents a major failure of observation. Connecticut today is more forested, with more abundant wildlife, than in pre-settlement times, as documented by Jim Sterba in Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds, Al Cambronne in Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance & the Essence of Wilderness, and my own experience, discovering every bird and mammal then native to the rural Eastern Townships of Quebec (an area half the size of Connecticut) within just the northern half of densely populated Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Misanthropy has long been associated with environmentalism, dating back to the origins of environmentalism in response to the Industrial Revolution, building in large part on the ideas of the economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who heavily influenced Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and John Muir (1838-1914), among others. However, taking a Darwinian view of the human influence on habitat produces a very different perspective: humans are engines of evolution, continually creating new habitats and expanding net biodiversity, which has only increased on every continent during the few centuries that anyone has tried to measure it.
(Please note that net biodiversity, the sum of all organisms living somewhere, is a very different concept from “native biodiversity,” which excludes “non-native” species from the count, which are the majority of species in most habitats, and thereby creates the popular illusion that we are experiencing a “biodiversity crisis” and/or an “extinction crisis,” whereas documented species discovery and/or rediscovery so far outpace documented extinctions that there is no real comparison.)
George Waters says
wow… I was expecting some kind of reply, but not so one that is so generous !!
Looking at the population info you provided me https://population.un.org/wpp/Graphs/Probabilistic/POP/TOT/900 all I can say is that I did right by not bringing any more humans into the world.
This I am in total agreement with:
“Either way, gaining control of population growth has been perhaps the biggest environmental success story of our time. Achieving a transition to plant-based diets and to use of renewable energy sources are also goals within sight, based on present trends, especially within the industrialized world.”
If we are to talk about pre-settlement times in CT, are we discussing pre-native American or pre-European ??
I’ve had a conservation officer lecture to me how 200 years ago there was not a single tree in Connecticut, and all I could do was pray for her.
I do not doubt that forests were exploited back then, as they continue to do so today – but I should have clarified my direct observations as being based on living here for 35 plus years now, of which twenty of those years were spent – incredible as this may sound – going on atp test flights in military helicopters, which allowed me to directly see the impacts of development right in my own neck of the woods, as there’s nothing like a view from 5000 feet up.
That being said – during that time there was a gap of 4 years or so 1995 – 1999 where I was reallocated within the plant where I was not flying, and once I resumed my previous position – I could not believe how much additional development took place on land – and also [some very good news !!] – how much cleaner the waters of the Long Island Sound had become.
It’s all good.
I truly believe both me and you want the same for our planet, I’m just seeing things a bit more different that you are, that’s all.
I would never presume what life is like in your neck of the woods, but everything I hear about that region makes me inclined to believe that you have truly found heaven on earth.
If I had a choice, I’d personally like to go to Canada, as they have real good balance between population and land mass.
Yes, some areas are incredibly densely populated, and when I see overhead views of the suburban developments in Toronto I actually find it hard to believe what I am seeing, as it just looks so fake – but then I look at images of NYC, and I might as well be looking at a computer circuit board, something that was also noticed in the first of The Qatsi Trilogies, which I am sure you are most familiar with.
Merritt Clifton says
Again, George Waters’ comment demonstrates an acute, albeit common, failure of observation. I too lived for a time in Connecticut, where I was news editor for a monthly magazine about animals & nature, ran a rabies information hotline, and helped to coordinate the first major controlled study of neuter/return feral cat control from a windowless office in a concrete basement. Most of the local readers of that magazine were avid animal advocates and environmentalists, espousing approximately the same sentiments as Waters, based on similar superficial observation, but I knew there would not have been a need for a rabies information hotline if an abundance of raccoons, foxes, skunks, and bats had not allowed the Mid-Atlantic rabies pandemic of 1976-1996 to spread into the area. Neither would there have been a feral cat population to control without an abundant population of small rodents for them to hunt. Moreover, I could leave that windowless office, at one end of a shopping center in a suburban business district, walk a block in any direction, and observe the signs of all of the animals who might have carried rabies, see deer at any time of day or night, watch hawks, owls, and golden eagles, hear coyotes yelping and howling, and jog ten minutes to see beaver dams and bear tracks. Almost everyone else I knew in Connecticut was oblivious to the presence of so much wildlife, partly because the animals were not holding still to be seen, as in a zoo, partly because they were conditioned to imagine that wildlife exists only in wilderness, and partly because they were too focused on signs of the presence of humanity to see the ubiquitous and dynamic presence of nature.
Recommended reading: Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle, by Tristan Donovan.
Observing habitat from a helicopter is much like studying a lawn by walking across it. Most people will see a lawn and imagine it is a barren monoculture; but a keener observer will notice that almost every lawn includes not only several different varieties of grass, but also the stubs of many different vines, shrubs, herbs, and flowers that remain quite alive even though the lawn mower blades do not allow them to grow tall enough to sprout leaves and shed pollen. Below the surface of the lawn will be a deep, usually rich underground ecology, the depth of which can be estimated by knowing the usual depths of the root systems of the plants that are visible from the surface. Just a few minutes of watching will show extensive insect and worm activity, in turn attracting bird and mammal visits. Some lawns are of course much richer than others, but almost any suburban lawn contains more biodiversity than a comparable patch of Amazon rain forest, & yes, I have done the comparison in person.
Lawns, however, are only one component of the tremendous biodiversity visible in any mature suburb that cannot be seen from above. A mature suburb, meaning that bulldozing and building construction have largely ceased as the habitat is built out, also includes a rich canopy of both native trees and ornamental and fruit trees, furnishing far more diversity of food and shelter to birds, insects, bats, squirrels, chipmunks, and other arboreal mammals in most cases than did the farm land the suburb replaced. The plants alongside freeways and in divider strips often provide thoroughfares as trafficked by animals, large and small, as by humans in cars –– which is why the average observer will see and mourn the roadkills of larger species, such as rabbits, deer, raccoons, and opossums, and never realize that those dead animals would not be there if a far larger population of the same species did not survive to keep the roadside habitat occupied.
The biologically richest part of any habitat tends to be the edge habitat, and suburban sprawl is really nothing but edge habitat, with now and then a deeper forest surrounding a reservoir to preserve the relatively few species, such as bears, with a need for more cover than is needed by smaller mammals.
The more suburban sprawl you see, the more wildlife habitat you see developing; but even the concrete canyons of New York City are scarcely the barren deserts that most of the residents tend to imagine. New Yorkers tend to imagine that rats and the squirrels in Central Park are the biggest wildlife they live among, but coyotes, foxes, owls, and peregrine falcons, among other large predators, have documentedly thrived even in the heart of Manhattan for more than 30 years. Finding them is just a matter of looking, and of course of knowing how to look, since turds in an alley often convey more information than any field guide.
George Waters says
My friend, I never said I was looking at wildlife via helicopter, but that
I was looking at how the landscape was changing in the name of progress…
Rural areas becoming more urban, that kind of thing.
As far as wildlife goes, I did a 10 year study of the tidal portion of the
Housatonic river year round as long as it was not frozen via kayak or canoe.
I’ve seen directly the impacts of pollution especially fishing line on all
kinds of waterfowl and even mammals.
I’ve see coyotes with severe mange.
Worse. I’ve seen numerous examples of wildlife suffering of starvation as
their habitats change and their numbers become un-sustainable.
This is one reason why it is illegal to relocate wildlife, among many
I went so far as to become a licensed trapper so I could see about legally
relocating a beaver family out of a highly toxic canal in Shelton, only to
be told that’s illegal as well.
Contrary to what you may think, many come to me as I spent a total of 12
years in the field looking at wildlife, of which a good 8 were spent doing
rescue work until the state told me to knock it off as I was not a licensed
To my knowledge I was one of the first in my area to get into natural
drought resistant gardens, and believe me when I tell you I have all the
good insects, bees, butterflies, birds etc…. so I completely understand the importance of all the little things.
Yes rodents are essential for raptor’s and other mammals who prey on them
problem is people out here like to poison them which in turn kills everything else.
I can see you will never have any belief in my own work, which I find
unfortunate, because all points of view need to be considered if we are to
work together to help save our planet.
I found your website here quite informative, especially when bringing things to light such as the Heidi Lueders case, believe me “The Nut Case State” sums up CT perfectly, as we had yet another violent incident right in my own town, where the City is bringing the accused to court to see if maybe they would consider surrendering ownership of their dog, considering that they shot at it 9 or 10 times with a 9mm, of which two rounds hit the unfortunate intended target.
But I feel sad that my own views, which in retrospect I should have never interjected here are not even being considered.
It’s all good.
Signing off now….
Merritt Clifton says
Two further points:
Mange, a parasitic disease typically afflicting animals who are already malnourished or unhealthy, occurs as often, relative to animal populations, in “wilderness” as anywhere else. But what casual observers often report as “mange” is often just animals, including coyotes, deer, and foxes, shedding their winter coats. If naked red skin is not visible, “bare” patches are usually not mange.
“Starvation” among urban wildlife, including street dogs and feral cats, is usually caused by parasitic worms, not lack of food. If there is a genuine shortage of food somewhere, animals normally move on. A bit of Ivermectin in such cases can work miracles. See De-worming makes a real-life “slum dog millionaire.”