Windmills Blow Ill for Birds
As Illinois pushes for clean energy from the wind, questions remain about the environmental effects of the giant wind turbines now emerging on the state's farmlands.
Wind is the country's fastest-growing source of energy, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich wants Illinois to generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to three nuclear plants, by 2012.
Wind energy's charms are obvious.
The "fuel" is free and infinite in supply. Wind turbines emit no pollution or greenhouse gases. Arrays of wind turbines, known as wind farms, use no water. Farmers get as much as $5,000 a year for each turbine on their land.
But at the wrong site, wind farms have a huge drawback.
They can slaughter birds and bats in large numbers, as avian life slams into 400-foot-tall turbine towers or are struck by turbine blades whose tips spin as fast as 200 miles per hour.
Illinois sits beneath the Mississippi Flyway, traveled by migratory birds from as far as the Arctic coast of Alaska to Patagonia at the southern tip of South America.
Millions of birds fly through the state each year.
Industry experts say wind farms can be located in areas where they will kill relatively few birds.
Or, as California has proven, wind farms can be installed in places where they border on the murderous.
Wind farm developers are largely free to locate where they want, even if environmental regulators say a site threatens birds, as has happened in Illinois.
"Some wind farm projects have had bird deaths at higher rates than we like to see," said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. "At others, it seems to be low."
There is evidence that most wind farms are not a terrible threat to birds.
Surveys of bird kills vary, though developers like to use the figure of three birds killed per year per turbine as average. On the other hand, a Dutch wind farm averaged 37 bird kills per turbine, and significantly high numbers have been reported elsewhere.
And developers accurately argue that collisions with buildings, communication towers and other manmade objects kill many millions of birds each year, far more than the death toll from wind turbines.
Such comparisons ignore the fact that there are more than 100 million residential and commercial buildings in the U.S. and only about 16,000 wind turbines.
Butcher, like other environmentalists and bird experts interviewed for this story, likes the idea of wind as a clean way of generating electricity.
"If the wind power industry will invest a little bit more in good siting decisions, it's a very feasible alternative," he said. "All we are asking is a little more due diligence."
Illinois has two commercial wind farms in operation, with a handful of others in development. In McLean County 10 miles east of Bloomington, a developer backed by the investment firm Goldman Sachs wants to erect 243 turbines capable of generating 400 megawatts of electricity, making it one of the largest land-based wind farms in the world.
If federal subsidies are extended, the Arrowsmith project could be making power in 2007. Environmental regulators aren't much concerned about Arrowsmith's hazard for birds, and neither is the developer.
"It has everything to do with the siting of the project," said Bill Whitlock, project development manager for Zilkha Renewable Energy, the Texas firm that is developing Arrowsmith.
The turbines will be scattered over 35,000 acres in a region that is almost entirely flat farmland, safer for birds to navigate than hilltops or mountain passes dotted with turbines.
There are no large bodies of water to attract birds. The area is not close to the Mississippi River, backbone of the transcontinental flyway. The site has few trees, which further reduces the bird population.
A study commissioned by Arrowsmith's developer concluded that it would kill relatively few birds.
And then there is the Crescent Ridge wind farm in Bureau County, about 120 miles west of Chicago. Its 33 turbines are just beginning to generate power.
When developer Midwest Wind Energy of Chicago was planning Crescent Ridge, the company conferred with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about minimizing bird kills.
The service, which has guidelines for wind farms, offered a number of suggestions. "The company agreed to pretty much everything we asked for, except relocation," said Rick Nelson, a field supervisor with the wildlife service.
Federal biologists were concerned that Crescent Ridge was too close to the Illinois River and a wetland frequented by waterfowl.
They wanted the project moved away from natural features that attract birds.
Stefan Noe, president of Midwest Wind Energy, explains why he ignored the recommendation to relocate.
"Our expert felt that it just was not going to result in significant bird mortality, and anyway, it's easier said than done," Noe said.
"We had spent all kinds of money on this project," he said. "This area is really optimal for a wind turbine project."
Unlike most modes of generating electricity, wind power is largely free of regulation. Nuclear power, for example, is closely regulated by the federal government.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service has only recommendations, not requirements, for wind farms.
The agency suggests that surveys of bird populations and other factors be taken into account before choosing a site. Wind farms should not be located near landfills or wetlands. Turbines should be grouped closely together, as some avian experts believe they are thus more visible to birds than if dispersed.
Heidi Woeber, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, says developers consult with her agency, but it is voluntary.
"Obviously, they don't really have to comply with anything," Woeber said. "Some, we never hear from them again."
Nearly all experts on wind farm siting recommend that a study of bird kills be conducted both before construction and again after all turbines are running.
The postconstruction study shows how well the site is managing bird deaths.
Christopher Moore is director of development for Navitas Energy Inc., which in 2003 opened a 50-megawatt commercial wind farm--the first in the state--near Compton, about 70 miles west of Chicago.
His firm did a preconstruction study, as is recommended. But he said he will not do a postconstruction study, for a simple reason: "It wasn't required."
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has no sway over wind farms.
Tom Flattery, an official who deals with environmental issues, said the DNR can advise but not regulate wind farms.
Still, Flattery doesn't believe his agency would do much to discourage power from an utterly clean source.
"I can't see how the Department of Natural Resources could be an opponent of this kind of generation," he said.
The number of turbines is expected to multiply rapidly in coming years, and experience shows that when the turbines are placed in the wrong location, bird deaths can approach the catastrophic.
The largest number of turbines in the country are sited east of San Francisco, in an area called Altamont Pass. Thousands of older-model turbines spin there.
An estimated 4,800 birds are killed at Altamont each year, though federal biologists say such estimates may be substantially too low. Worse, many of the dead are eagles, hawks or other raptors. Altamont was the first modern wind farm in the U.S. Its site is fine for generating power, terrible for creatures of the air.
The area is hilly and creased with passes, both attractive to birds.
Rising air currents encourage birds to glide. A large rodent population attracts birds of prey.
"I think the biggest problem with Altamont is that there are 4,000 turbines in one area," said Kevin Smith, senior vice president of Invenergy LLC of Chicago, which is looking to build a wind farm in Illinois.
But Shawn Smallwood, who studied the bird deaths at Altamont on behalf of the California Energy Commission, disagrees.
Smallwood said that if you measure bird kills by megawatts generated--a way of evening out the differences between old, small turbines and today's giant turbines--the death rate is roughly the same at sites around the country.
"The wind industry portrays itself as a good thing, as less dangerous," Smallwood said. "But they don't have any foundation for their conclusion."
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