Sleek turbines that turn wind into electricity have been popping up worldwide, becoming symbols of the movement to stem global warming. Especially since the 1996 Kyoto agreement on climate change, many governments have set out to fund renewable energy. Britain resolved to generate 10% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office says more than 62,000 additional wind turbines are needed by 2020 to meet Department of Energy goals for wind energy. Wind farms are now the fastest growing part of the international strategy to reduce greenhouse gases.
The Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm in Atlantic City, the country's first coastal wind farm, began operating in December 2005. Recently, a proposal for a 40-turbine site in the ocean off Long Island gained the support of many environmental groups as well as the Long Island Power Authority and the governor of New York.
Wind is more expensive than fossil fuels only if one ignores the environmental costs of the latter, such as global warming and acid rain. And although wind farms are not as beautiful as wind in the willows, neither are oil spills. In Massachusetts, a proposal to construct 130 offshore wind turbines in Nantucket Sound has been fiercely debated in the affluent communities of Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. Yet, as Greenpeace points out, the Cape’s current power plant caused a spill of 100,000 gallons of oil in Buzzard’s Bay in 2003.
Especially during the times turbines are being built or decommissioned, companies providing offshore wind energy can disturb marine life. These effects, too, should be considered in comparison to those of other human activities such as shipping, plundering the ocean for fish, or the extraction of oil and gas.
Studies carried out on the impact of existing offshore turbines suggest many animals do not hear their low-frequency noise. Yet it’s important to consider the potential impacts of offshore wind farm developments on coastal animals and how their habitat might be impacted by increased erosion or accretion.
U.S. power companies run several green electricity plans, which charge a premium to consumers who wish to support wind energy. Major inland wind-energy sites include the Stateline Wind Project on the Oregon-Washington line, the New Mexico Wind Energy Center, which runs 136 turbines and is owned by Florida Power and Light, and Northern New York’s Maple Ridge Wind Farm, jointly owned by two energy corporations. Wind energy sites are appearing on public lands as well, by permission of the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. In Canada, On tario leads the trend in wind use.
Windswept areas tend to be found offshore or along coasts and high ridges. So do animals. That’s not a reason to automatically bar wind farms, for all energy technologies have some negative effects on animals and the natural environment. But it is important to encourage the right development in the right location.
Are Wind Farms Unsafe for Birds?
Wind energy was embraced early in California, prompted by tax incentives for investors. Altamont Pass, near San Francisco, looked particularly good, with its warm valley air meeting cool coastal air, driving the turbines at a time of high electricity demand. But birds hunt ground squirrels in the area, and for the eagles, hawks and owls, the enormous stretch of moving blades became a death trap. The company that ran the farm, Florida Power and Light, attempted to mitigate the disaster not only by installing nacelle screens to reduce the opportunity for birds to perch on turbines, but also through targeting rodents, possibly killing kit foxes and other small animals along with squirrels. Said a company spokesperson, “If we eliminate or reduce the number of prey on the ground, then the raptors won’t swoop in to feed on them.” A lawsuit to close the farm claimed that some 10,000 birds, and an unknown number of other animals, died on the scene over a 20-year period.
The Hoosac Wind Project, a plan to build turbines on two ridges in western Massachusetts, has been delayed for research into the effects on migrating bats and birds. Plans to erect two dozen turbines near Crieff, Scotland were rejected because of ecological concerns; and a company abandoned a proposal to build 20 turbines elsewhere in Britain due to the risk to golden eagles and red kites. Golden eagles' traditional nesting places are usually found in open moors and on mountains, and may be used for generations. Red kites, already put at risk by collisions with power cables, have been the subjects of the longest continuous conservation project in the world.
A Norwegian wind farm recently raised concerns when nine sea eagles were reported to have died after colliding with turbine rotor blades. These deaths included all of the previous year's chicks, and the number of breeding pairs on the islands dropped from 19 to one in the same period. In contrast, a study using radar found that geese and eider ducks nearly always flew safely down the corridors between the 72 turbines of Denmark’s Nysted wind farm in the Baltic Sea. Less than one per cent flew close enough to the blades to risk collision, and many birds avoided the wind farm altogether. And although many birds frequent Blyth, on the coast of northeast England, its wind farm has reportedly caused only one or two collisions per year per turbine. Compare that to 10 million birds killed in Britain annually by cars. Still, researchers warn about the possible cumulative effect of more and more wind farms.
Britain ’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds supports “appropriately positioned wind farms” because they help mitigate climate change, which, they explain, “poses the most significant long-term threat to the environment.” Indeed, the impact of global warming on birds is severe. T he fish eaten by sea birds are, in recent years, getting smaller, as the plankton they rely on are affected by rising sea temperatures. So the birds have less food, and this means some bird populations are dropping. It’s important to ask whether critics are observing this big picture when they oppose wind farms. With careful assessments and thorough monitoring, wind power can and should be made available without undue danger to birds. Already, the most up-to-date windmills are being designed to prevent birds from perching on them (solving one of the problems with the Altamont Pass turbines) --and the blades rotate much more slowly than earlier designs.
And Then There Are Bats…
Birds aren’t the only ones put at risk by moving turbines. Along ridges and mountaintops in the eastern United States, migrating bats, too, have crashed into the blades. Because there’s no legal protection for most bats, they have been largely ignored in site planning.
The Mountaineer Project is a large site, made up of 44 turbines on an eastern North American ridge. It’s one of the two sites operated by Florida Power and Light along the Appalachian Plateau that were opened for bat studies. Over 2,000 bats of seven species died there over the course of a summer. One description of the scene explains:
The $60,000 thermal imaging cameras set up at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in West Virginia showed bats approaching the electricity-producing turbines almost like curious kittens enchanted by a tumbling ball of yarn. When the blades were spinning at their standard 17 revolutions per minute, the results could be and often were fatal. Yet bats sometimes chased harmlessly after the tips of slow-moving blades as though investigating the inexplicable devices that proved neither prey nor bat. Some bats actually landed on stationary blades, suggesting curiosity about potential roosts or sources of insects.
About 900 turbines have been proposed for wooded ridge tops within a 70-mile radius of these study sites in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Those turbines could kill tens of thousands of bats a year, warned Merlin D. Tuttle, the founder of Bat Conservation International, who adds that such big kills could put entire species at risk.
The Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative was formed to address the situation. This group includes government agencies, Bat Conservation International, and the American Wind Energy Association. A few years ago, a conference on bat death prevention hosted by Florida Power and Light attracted attendees from the United States, Canada and Britain. One idea was to “feather” the turbine blades -- turn them parallel to the wind to keep them from spinning -- during low winds. As most of the bats were hit during these calm periods, when little electricity is produced, feathering the blades then could sharply reduce the threat to bats.
Another site of concern is Florida Power and Light’s farm near the Selma Bat Cave in Oklahoma, home to some 5 million Mexican free-tailed bats. Reports suggest that many bats die there, but usually at only a few turbines. Finding out why bats die mainly at some turbines but not others at the same site could be a key to making wind energy safer.
But after being presented with the 2004 research results and with proposals for new research that holds the potential for significantly reducing bat kills, officials at Florida Power and Light withdrew the company’s participation in the initiative, denying the scientific team continuous access to turbines. As this company owns more that half of all U.S. wind farms, this decision obstructed key research.
Grappling With Root Causes
If wind generators always performed at their peak, one megawatt of capacity could serve the needs of about 380 people in North America, including what they consume from industry and agriculture. But turbines can't run in light winds, and they shut down in heavy winds to avoid damage. And wind might not always produce power at the right time. Wind doesn’t stop blowing when city lights go out for the night.
Wind proponents point out that new technology may be able to store the energy, possibly through the use of rechargeable flow batteries. And as wind farms spread over a wider area, the energy they produce becomes more reliable. The Worldwatch Institute has claimed that turbines on less than 1 percent of the 48 contiguous states could provide a fifth of current U.S. power needs.
And yet, once we start calculating space in this way, we see clearly the need to keep the planet’s human population in check. We can’t depend on alternative technology to build our way out of the reality that the continued spreading of one species -- our own -- is overburdening our earth. Wind farms won’t solve everything; mainly, they’re embraced as a business opportunity. To address the root problem -- our current population’s massive demand for energy -- key lifestyle changes are essential. Indeed, one daily air route between Britain and Florida uses up energy equal to that generated by three giant wind farms.
And we should be asking how to support local markets. John Mackey, CEO of the ever-expanding Whole Foods Market chain, boasts of offsetting the company's electricity use by buying wind-power credits from a Colorado firm, and has just opened a distribution hub with the largest solar roof in Connecticut. But the company ships much of its food long-distance for marketing reasons: because the chain’s well-to-do shoppers will find Chilean sea bass or British cheddar desirable. And this raises the most significant point of all: Whole Foods Market is a major distributor of animal products. So it’s hardly accurate for the firm’s promotional material to state that “we ‘walk our talk’ with dedication to be a leader in environmental stewardship."
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says animal agribusiness generates more greenhouse gas emissions --18 percent -- than the entire transportation sector. Meat and dairy production takes an immense toll on the land and water, and is expected to double by 2050, just as it has in the last 50 years.
All agriculture uses land and energy, so w e all make our mark on the planet: The average person in the U.S. is responsible for emissions equivalent to about four tons of CO2 annually. But the omnivore is responsible for the emissions of gases equivalent to a ton and a half more CO2 each year than a vegan who eats the same number of calories derived only from plants. Imagine the effect of large segments of the population switching to a plant-based diet!
On the other hand, what a waste it is to use almost the entire Midwestern United States for animal feed and its correlative pesticide production. Some say organic or free-range meat is the answer, but it’s no bargain for the environment, as it can come from animals who emit much more methane than animals in feedlots do. And methane is a greenhouse gas with over 20 times the potency of carbon dioxide. So when we make an ethical commitment to respect animals by opting out of animal agribusiness, it turns out that we are making the best decision overall for the ecology -- that is, for our entire biocommunity.
So, What Else Is New?
A group of nuclear weapons scientists at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California have proposed shielding the planet from the sun’s warmth by launching tons of tiny hydrogen-filled balloons into the atmosphere every year. Other scientists suggest spraying salt-water or sulphate particles into the air to obscure the sun’s effects. These schemes carry risks of damaging the ozone or causing risky changes in rainfall patterns. A better idea has emerged from a non-governmental organization called Trans Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation, comprising European and African members. They’ve put forward a plan for powering Saharan countries and Europe, showing that an area of 450 square miles in the Sahara Desert could generate enough solar power to cover the whole world’s energy requirements as projected for 2030. Unlike nuclear power, solar power is infinite, can survive without huge public subsidies, and doesn’t generate greenhouse gas, troublesome waste, or dangerous accidents. Katharine Hamnett, a leading organic fashion designer and environmental campaigner, posits that sun power stations installed in a small area with a desert climate could generate a substantial portion of North and Central American energy needs.
It’s important to consider solar alternatives because presently available biofuels (oils derived from crops), if used in an environmentally and socially responsible manner, can only substitute for about five percent of current petroleum and diesel at the level they’re consumed in Europe and the United States. Thus, by proposing to raise the proportion to 24% by 2017, the White House shows it’s still failed to grasp the problem before us.
In March 2007, George Bush announced a biofuel trade alliance with Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva. The bilateral agreement has been touted by the media as the first step in the creation of an "ethanol Opec". In Brazil, where fuel pumps offer their sugar-based “alcohol” at a cheaper price than petroleum, ethanol has been used as fuel for decades. Biofuel production in South America might be locally beneficial; but taking advantage of public concern about global warming are large agribusinesses, oil, and biotech companies. Brazil 's sugar cane production is expected to jump by 55% in the coming six years, largely because of growing demand from the U.S. and Europe. This will mean still more vast monocultures of sugar, soy, and African palm throughout Latin America.
So although ethanol can be made from a variety of crops -- corn, barley, wheat, palm, soybean or beet crops are also sources -- the ecologies it displaces are not renewable. In both Brazil and Malaysia, activists are predicting severe losses of animal life, the destruction of rural traditions, and unprecedented risks due to the increasing promotion of genetically modified organisms. Harvesting cane involves burning, which causes air pollution. For all of these reasons, it’s critical that we all reduce our energy consumption, and dramatically increase investment in truly renewable alternatives, such as solar energy.
There are also important humanitarian reasons to avoid banking on biofuels. Migrant workers who cut sugar cane on Brazil’s plantations earn as little as $200 a month. Working twelve-hour shifts in the sweltering heat, a few of these cortadores die each year of exhaustion. And the use of huge amounts of corn and other cereals to extract a gallon of ethanol is offensive to starving people. In Guatemala, which refused the export plan, the project would devastate the production of staple foods. For South America to agree to export mass agricultural goods for the ethanol market would cause a world hunger catastrophe, say Guatemala’s popular leaders and farmers.
U.S. farmers, of course, are also spotting the incentives to grow corn as a substitute for oil. Thus, corn prices on the east coast have doubled since late last year, hitting more than $4 a bushel. We’re finding out, however, that corn, which is grown with chemicals and farm equipment, can easily require more energy than the finished fuel it produces. And expanding the crop along the east coast could have a serious impact on the sensitive ecology of the Chesapeake Bay.
Conclusion: Bringing Environmental and Social Justice to the Table
As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere threatens to melt glaciers and acidify the oceans, many countries are stepping up efforts to address climate change. Australia has just banned inefficient incandescent light bulbs, and the European Union has committed to reducing its emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. In the United States, over 1,200 climate rallies (including rallies planned and supported by Friends of Animals) have taken place in all 50 states as part of the Step It Up campaign.
As the world’s largest contributor to greenhouse gases, the United States simply cannot continue to build power plants and rely on oil. Greenhouse and acidifying gases pose enormous threats to birds and bats and all other animals, and we need wind farms to tackle these risks.
But wind farms aren’t the whole answer, and when they are developed, each potential site must be considered individually, with local animals in mind. The sites should be part of a comprehensive approach that seeks other alternatives, including tidal power and solar panels. Planting trees is also a helpful move, as trees reduce erosion and filter pollutants that might otherwise reach streams, bays, and oceans. Trees also lessen energy costs for buildings and counter global warming through their ability to store and absorb carbon.
Most important of all, however, is our willingness to make key lifestyle changes. Gone are the days when people could claim to be environmentalists, yet support industries that use animals as consumer goods.
Yet again, the principle holds true: Veganism is direct action.