The answer to our energy needs, my friend, is blowin' in the wind

Posted: Sep 23, 2018

Huge gusts of wind have caused me nothing but grief. The wind can turn a sunny winter day into a bitterly cold nightmare in a matter of minutes. Not only can you find yourself chasing hats down the street and cleaning up broken branches from your yard, but the wind can cause millions of dollars in damage and even death. On the other hand, humans have also realized that capturing wind’s enormous power can bring enormous benefits. Windmills have been grinding grain into flour in Persia since 500 AD. Modern technology now has the capabilities for a single wind turbine to provide electricity for 1,000 homes. It is about time we utilize this technology and turn wind from a headache into a hero.

The BLM is currently considering whether to approve the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Farm Project. This 1,000 turbine facility would be the largest wind farm in America and instantly make Wyoming the third leading wind energy producing state, behind only Texas and California. The project would not only provide power for 900,000 homes, but would also generate $336 million dollars in state tax revenue over five years and create over 200 full time jobs. Although the project has received significant backing, it is not without its share of critics.

At first glance the amount of land being considered for the proposal seems terribly daunting, coming in at over 200,000 acres. This figure, however, only reflects the boundaries where the turbines could be placed. The relatively small foundations of the turbines will only permanently affect 1,500 acres of land. That is a quarter of the land needed for California’s proposed McCoy Solar Energy Project, which is currently being considered by the BLM.  Even with the small amount of land disturbance, Wyoming’s wind farm would generate four times the electricity as the McCoy Project.

A common fear of environmentalists has always been the number of bird deaths caused by collisions with wind turbines, but these fears have been largely overblown. The perception has been that the turbines are giant bird guillotines mercilessly chopping unsuspecting birds to pieces. Turbines certainly do cause some avian fatalities, but studies have found that wind turbines account for only .003% of all deaths caused by human related activities. Americans could save over a hundred times as many birds simply by keeping their cats indoors.

There is another winged animal that fares worse against a wind farm’s swirling sickles. Migratory bats, which were largely ignored by early studies, collide with turbines at higher rates than birds. Although the number of bat deaths is not significantly higher, the effect on bat populations is greater because they typically have a significantly longer lifespan and reproduce at much slower rates. However, collisions with migratory bats are easier to avoid with a little planning. Research suggests bats are most often killed when turbines are rotating at slow speeds. Since bats are nocturnal, many fatalities could be avoided if the turbines are shut-down on nights when the wind dips below a certain mile per hour.
Despite these inflated claims, wind farms do not come without environmental consequences. A recent study in the UK suggests that the construction of turbines can have devastating effect on certain birds, particularly upland ground birds. The study debunks the bird guillotine myth, but suggests that certain species abandon nesting sites located near construction zones and do not appear to return swiftly after crews leave the area.

This indirect effect of wind facilities is bad news for the greater sage-grouse, a threatened upland ground bird that populates the area. The BLM has sited turbines carefully to avoid key sage-grouse habitat, but 15,000 acres of designated “core habitat” for the sage-grouse are within 1 mile of the turbines. The exact effects on this specific species is unknown, but the UK study suggests that it could be significant.

Also, few studies have been conducted on how wind facilities affect large mammals. Ground animals can avoid the blades, but increased development certainly won’t benefit species known for their skittishness around humans, such as elk. The impact on these animals may decrease after construction is complete, but little information is known about the long-term effects on migration patterns and habitat. If enough animals avoid the land with fully operational turbines, this could cause stress on surrounding habitat by increasing population densities.

Other concerns include the unquantifiable damage to the aesthetics of undeveloped land. The Wyoming project would be clearly visible from areas that have traditionally been frequented heavily by nature recreationalists, including a stretch of the historic Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, a well-traveled 3,100 mile hiking trail that connects Canada to Mexico. Opinions about the visual appeal of wind farms vary. Some see turbines as modern majestic windmills; others see them as blades of blight scarring an otherwise pristine landscape.

For me, the disastrous consequences of continuing to rely on gas and coal to supply our electricity trump the possible downsides of wind energy. Emissions-free wind energy is cleaner, safer, and more abundant than every possible fossil-fuel option. Critics are quick to point out that people don’t just use electricity whenever the wind blows. However, increased turbine efficiency, falling malfunction rates, and storage ability have largely quieted claims of wind powers unreliability. Three states in Germany supply 40% of their electricity by utilizing wind turbines without reliability issues, providing a concrete example of how careful planning and aggressive investment can harness the true potential of the wind. 
Some also argue that public lands are inappropriate for developing energy resources, but utilizing public land allows the government to ensure wind farm construction causes the least amount of environmental damage possible. The BLM has studied the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Farm Project area extensively to place turbines in areas that minimize their impact on wildlife and habitat. No development occurs without consequence, but the key is to limit the damage. This project strikes a good balance between the needs of the ecosystem and the need for clean energy. 

Although I generally oppose large-scale solar energy projects because of the destruction of habitat and disturbance of untouched beauty that they cause, I am less inclined take issue with wind facilities. Unlike sunlight, which is ubiquitous in every part of the country save for parts of Alaska in the winter, wind is only a reliable source of energy in certain locations. Anyone that has had the exhilarating experience of driving past a swaying semi on I-80 knows all too well how ideal Rawlins, Wyoming is for a wind farm. The project is located on land where the wind resources are deemed Class 6-7—the best found anywhere in the country.
Solar farms also seem unnecessary when there are viable and less harmful options for harnessing the sun’s energy. Small-scale production of wind energy is just not as feasible as installing solar panels on a rooftop. Even if energy companies start to utilize a “micro-grid” concept by installing solar panels to supply local areas, there would still be a need to plug the micro-grid into a larger infrastructure to provide back-up electricity in case of a rainy day. Wind is the best available source of energy to supply a back-up grid.

Off-shore wind facilities offer the best option for wind development. Wind resources are outstanding along the entire U.S. coastline and environmental damage to marine life appears to be relatively minor. Those that still find themselves troubled by the disturbance to wildlife caused by land-based turbines should show support for ecologically sensitive off-shore projects, such as the Rhode Island/Massachusetts Wind Energy Area. Without access roads or increased human traffic to disrupt wildlife habitat, the potential for harm is much smaller. Off-shore turbines are by no means perfect, but anything is better than the quagmire the Gulf finds itself in after the 2006 BP oil spill. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has recently released an environmental impact statement concerning the Rhode Island/Massachusetts Wind Energy Area and will soon be seeking public comments.

If the country is ever going to shake its reliance on fossil fuels, wind facilities will play a crucial role in the conversion to clean energy. However, citizens should ensure that wind projects are constructed in a smart and environmentally sensitive manner. I believe that the current Wyoming project is a beneficial and well-designed plan. The BLM is currently accepting comments from the public on the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project through July 30.

Learn more about the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy project and leave a comment for the BLM by July 30th.

~ Brian O'Neill

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