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A Civil War Between the Greens

Bats (nature) vs. Wind Turbines (solar power) -- the battle rages on.

By 6.16.05

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This article appears in the June issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

"IN RECENT YEARS WIND POWER has become a national fad," Howard Hayden writes in his new edition of The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won't Run the World. (The energy from wind usually comes under the rubric of solar.) Wind power doesn't pollute, doesn't contribute to global warming, doesn't quit, doesn't cost, doesn't run out, and so on. In short, it's virtuous.

So I was interested to see that the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group in San Francisco, recently sued a number of wind power companies in California. If you have ever flown to San Francisco, you may have seen the target of the lawsuit. In the East Bay, south of Oakland, you will see rows of wind turbines perched on bare, usually brown hills. The area is known as Altamont Pass.

The first paragraph of the lawsuit is amazing:

This is a complaint to recover restitution from defendants for their past wanton killing of many thousands of protected birds, including thousands of raptors such as Golden Eagles, Red-Tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, falcons and owls. These killings are in flagrant violation of the criminal prohibitions of numerous provisions of the California Fish and Game code, the federal Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Defendants have killed these magnificent raptors and other birds as a regular and continuing part of the process of generating electricity using thousands of small, obsolete wind turbine generators owned and/or operated by the defendants or entities they control at Altamont Pass in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, California.

Cited in the suit are private corporations with names like Windworks Inc., Altamont Winds, Pacific Winds, and so on. Over 5,000 wind turbines are operating in the Altamont Pass, and, according to the complaint, "they have killed tens of thousands of birds, including between 17,000 and 26,000 raptors -- more than a thousand Golden Eagles, thousands of hawks, and thousands of other raptors."

More than a thousand Golden Eagles! Thousands of hawks! Remember what happened in Manhattan when that cruel co-op removed the nest of just one hawk, Pale Male? And these magnificent birds in California are being killed in the thousands, by private, profit-seeking corporations who take the electricity and sell it to public utilities! Why aren't the guilty parties in San Quentin already?

The suit includes the following warning: "The thousands of eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and other birds killed by defendants are owned in common by the citizens of California. Defendants have never been granted any permit, license or other authorization to kill these birds by any state or federal agency, nor do state or federal law provide for the possibility of such a permit."

SO HERE WE HAVE A SALVO FIRED in a little noted "green" civil war -- a conflict between groups whom one imagined were allies: environmentalists and the lovers of "renewable" sources of energy. Normally counted as renewable are solar, wind, "biomass" (firewood, for you and me), and hydropower. (Well, we already knew the enviros hate hydroelectricity, which involves damming rivers, flooding scenic areas, and obstructing the passage of salmon.)

Howard Hayden puts out a newsletter called the Energy Advocate, and he has been predicting for decades that environmentalists will prove to be the fiercest opponents of renewable energy. The lawsuit is a straw in that wind.

No one seems quite sure why these birds fly into the wind turbines, incidentally. We do know that eagles and other raptors have terrific eyesight. Wouldn't last long if they didn't. Hayden says that the seemingly slow rotation rate of the turbine blades is deceptive.

The tip speed of a wind turbine is approximately six times the wind speed -- 90 mph in a 15-mph wind -- independent of the diameter of the wind turbine. What looks like a big fan making lazy circles in the sky (because of its low rpm) is actually three blades moving at high speed. So raptors see a blade move across their field of view and then disappear. They fly into the void only to be clobbered if they don't pass through the 6-to-10 foot gap by the time the next blade comes by. It gives new meaning to getting whacked.

The suit blames the "obsolete, first generation machines," installed at Altamont Pass between ten and 20 years ago. In contrast, the latest wind turbines have blades much higher off the ground and they also generate more electricity. They are also considered less deadly to birds "on a per kilowatt basis." A single modern turbine can replace 20 or more of the older ones, the suit claims.

So now they are building wind turbines the size of the Statue of Liberty. There's a big project underway five miles off Cape Cod, in the hallowed waters of Nantucket Sound. One hundred thirty turbines (over 400 feet high) will in theory be able to supply 75 percent of Cape Cod's electricity. But the Kennedy family worries the turbines twirling away on the horizon will spoil the view from Hyannis. And Robert Kennedy, Jr. is against the whole new-fangled idea. He imagines that visitors want to see "what the Pilgrims saw when they landed on Plymouth Rock."

But Walter Cronkite, who was initially opposed, has changed his mind, and now thinks that Nantucket Sound "is a waste area, really." It's so shallow that "nobody would sail through it," he says. The early opposition, his own included, was "almost hysterical." (Why did we ever trust this man?)

The Cape Wind Project is not yet under construction but my guess is that its supporters will prevail. My further guess is that maintenance will turn out to be a bigger headache than anticipated and that ever-increasing subsidies will be needed to keep the electricity coming.

I WAS CONTEMPLATING THE THREAT to raptors posed by those old, too-small Altamont-type turbines when I read this Washington Post headline: "Researchers Alarmed by Bat Deaths From Wind Turbines."

Now bats. Aren't they supposed to have pretty good sonar? This was in Appalachia, where giant turbines the size of huge construction cranes rise 350 feet above the West Virginia mountains -- well above the tree canopy. Researchers are said to be "baffled," "uncertain whether bats are attracted to the spinning blades or if their sonar, which allows them to find food and avoid trees and other objects, fails to detect the turbines." Many thousands of dead bats have been found, "some with battered wings and bloodied faces."

The deaths "appear to violate no federal laws," says the man from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, unreassuringly. We do know that bats perform a useful service, gobbling up mosquitoes and other insects. And waiting in the wings there's a group called Bat Conservation International, in Austin, Texas. Its leader is already talking about "unsustainable kill rates," so I'm sure we'll be hearing more from them.

ONE THING WE DO KNOW about renewable energy sources like wind and solar is that they are not getting the job done. In 1979, President Carter called for a "national commitment to solar energy," with the goal of producing 20 percent of the nation's energy from various renewable sources by the year 2000. Remarkably, their actual contribution to the energy pie, in percentage terms, declined from 1980 to 2000. And that despite all the tax credits and subsidies.

The latest figures show that renewables contributed 5.9 percent of the nation's energy in 2002. But that includes hydroelectricity, which makes by far the greatest contribution. And the enviros want to tear down as many dams as they can. President Clinton's EPA head Carol Browner removed hydro from the list of "renewable" sources because dams are politically incorrect.

Leave out hydropower and firewood, Howard Hayden says, and the residual "high-tech" sources, meaning photovoltaics ("solar") and wind, contribute a mere 0.19 percent of total U.S. energy needs. Hopeless, in other words.

It's hard to disguise these numbers, although the media sometimes try, for example by claiming that wind is the most rapidly increasing source of energy in the country. (Yes, but increasing from a minuscule base.) In its bat-kill story the Washington Post reported that the wind-turbine industry "provided nearly 17 billion kilowatt hours, enough to serve some 1.6 million households -- less than 1 percent of the country's electricity production."

DON'T EVEN ASK about the environmental impact of generating commercial amounts of electricity from sunlight, because the enviros cringe when the subject is brought up. And rightly so. There's a demonstration project called Solar Two in the Mojave Desert, and that is pretty much where they have to put these things, to have any chance at all. To remind: solar power needs sunlight, which means that it works quite well in places like Barstow, California, at mid-day.

The basic problem with wind and solar is that they are already "dilute" sources of energy. A magnifying glass can "concentrate" sunlight on a spot of paper, but that is only one spot. Same problem with photovoltaic cells. Small PV cells can power an electronic calculator, but not even the dimmest light bulb.

For an installation of solar reflectors to produce as much power as a typical nuclear plant in a year, Hayden writes, "it would have to cover 127 square miles." In other words, an area twice the size of Washington, D.C. has to be covered with movable mirrors. And to maintain their efficiency these mirrors must be washed every few days. Oh, and there has to be a natural gas back-up system to keep the therminol (fluid) bubbling when it's cloudy, or when the sun has set.

Tax credits determine all business decisions in this field, and to qualify for the credits, natural gas can be used to supply no more than 25 percent of the energy generated. "And that's about how much they do use," Hayden says.

How much land does commercial wind power really need? Imagine a one-mile wide swath of windmills extending all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles (400 miles). "That land area is what would be required to produce as much power around the clock as one large coal, natural gas or nuclear power station that normally occupies one square kilometer of land."

As to the lawsuit, it surely is not appropriate to say that a builder "kills" a bird if it flies into whatever he builds. But on one point I do agree with the environmentalists. Tax subsidies make them (and us all) unwilling participants in the whole exercise. I would be all in favor of wind projects if they could compete with other energy sources without subsidies. Clearly they cannot. The expiration of the Renewable Energy production tax credit at the end of 2003 "caused a dramatic slowdown in wind projects around the country," according to one report. The wind business went back to work as soon as a one-year extension was signed into law last October.

BY THE WAY, whatever happened to that old E.F. Schumaker, small-is-beautiful vision? That's how it all began. Maybe you're too young to remember! It was a hippie Whole Earth Catalog ecology thing. You could be off the grid, independent of the utilities. Grow your own vegetables, and grass, hole up in your cabin, roll your own joint, and even partake of a little home-brewed electricity so you can read your Thoreau or Buckminster Fuller by night. And if the sun shone all day the solar panel on the roof might even take the chill off the bath water.

That's all gone. It's as though we once had this small town amateur team that started up in a wild burst of enthusiasm and then was somehow persuaded it could compete in the major leagues. It was all a fantasy.

There are still lots of true believers, such as Bill McKibben, who worry that the renewable cause is dividing environmentalists into "bitter factions." Which it is. We've got to stop worrying about bats and Golden Eagles, the true believers say. They beseech us to love those behemoth cranes reaching up above the sky-line. They can think of nothing but global warming and greenhouse gases, and there's one word they don't want to hear: the n word. But nuclear power surely is coming back. All we have to regret is the 25-year delay.

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator, where his "Capitol Ideas" column appears each month. This article appears in the current June issue. To subscribe to The American Spectator, click here.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).