The blades of wind turbines are as long as the wingspan of a 737 jet.
It’s an enticing idea: Harness the free and natural power of the wind to fuel the nation. Fewer greenhouse gases adding to climate change. Fewer smokestacks smudging the sky. Fewer gaping pits where mountains once rose.
The idea has set off a rush to exploit the resource. Farmers and ranchers across the nation’s “wind belt” are signing contracts with wind energy developers. State governments are mandating that wind be part of their energy portfolios. Wind turbines are spreading across the landscape like so many elongated pinwheels; but this is far from child’s play. Modern wind turbines tower hundreds of feet into the sky with rotors as long as the wingspan of a 737 jet. So, along with its promise, come some serious challenges.
First, each turbine requires 40-100 acres of land, a road for access, and transmission lines to send the electricity to large metropolitan areas. Multiply all that land and road miles and a large-scale wind farm consumes thousands of acres – yet little is known about the effect these installations will have on that land and the surrounding wildlife. Today’s modern turbines appear to kill relatively few birds, compared to models installed 20 years ago. Unfortunately, some species of bats appear to be drawn to the turbines, especially during fall migrations, resulting in the deaths of thousands at large-scale wind farms. During one spring and fall, four times more bats than birds were killed at Montana’s Judith Gap Wind Project.
Given the scale of these facilities, you might be surprised to learn that very little scientific research has been done on their environmental effects – until now. “An Ecological Risk Assessment of Wind Energy Development in Montana,”authored by The Nature Conservancy in Montana, is a pioneering study. It’s the first scientific analysis of where wind energy might be developed in the state with minimal risk to wildlife and the environment. The study couldn’t have come at a better time. Montana is ranked fifth in the nation for wind energy potential, and several large wind generation projects are in the works. Yet the state places no restrictions and requires no special license for building wind farms on private land.
The Nature Conservancy’s assessment started with maps of the state’s highest wind potential areas and overlaid them with data on species of concern and crucial habitat types. It weighed factors such as high densities of wetlands used by large populations of waterfowl and shorebirds, sage grouse breeding and nesting ground, grizzly habitat and areas with large numbers of bat and grassland bird species. What emerged is a general guide to where wind development poses the highest and lowest threat to wildlife.
Out of the 17-million acres of Montana showing high to superb wind potential, 9.2-million could be developed with a relatively low risk to resident wildlife. In general, the lowest risk areas are those that have already been fragmented by roads, agriculture, and other development.
As the Conservancy’s Montana Director of Science Brian Martin points out, “Cropland is not usually high quality wildlife habitat.”
Martin cautions that much more research is needed, but the demand for information is so pressing that even this initial study has been snapped up by wind energy developers.
Seth Wilmore from Generation Energy, a renewable power developer in Virginia, has added the study to his company’s data base. “We want to be responsible about where we site any facility. We want to do the right thing, that’s why we’re in this business in the first place.”
Of course, there’s more than altruism involved. Banks and financial backers want to be sure that they aren’t investing in trouble down the road. Lawsuits have already emerged over the noise levels and the visual impact of wind farms. As new technologies arise, could the old farms turn into huge wastelands of derelict turbines and tons of concrete footings?
“The financial guys need to see that we’ve shown due diligence,” Wilmore says.
Locating a plant with the environment in mind can help avoid litigation and regulation after-the-fact. No one wants to be slapped with endangered species restrictions after they’ve invested millions of dollars in a project.
The good news about wind power is that it can reduce our dependence on energy sources that are contributing to global warming. Unlike coal, oil, and gas, we have an abundance of choices on where wind energy development occurs. It only makes sense to guide its development according to sound scientific data and conservation principles.