By Merlin Tuttle
Early expectations for green energy, especially from wind, were exciting. We all wanted to believe in a source of energy that was clean and endlessly renewable, one that would permit us to minimize the consequences of expanding population and consumption.
When we began to discover that there are no free rides, we still optimistically believed we’d soon find solutions. I organized the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, a partnership among bat conservationists, government agencies, and the wind industry, and we all shared high hopes for rapid progress.
We were surprised to find far more serious threats than previously suspected. However, encouraging discoveries were also made. By simple curtailment of spinning turbines at low wind speeds, when energy production was minimal, bat kills could be reduced by an average of 83% with a less than 1% loss in power production. A review of early discoveries is available.
Unexpectedly, many companies, including some of America’s largest, simply refused to implement scientific discoveries. What began with high hopes has too often become a cover for companies to neglect threats to wildlife. The public is now misled by reports of seldom implemented research progress. Faced with rapid industry expansion, the current goal of reducing bat kills by 50% is inadequate, and far below what is actually achievable.
Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment” award winner, Michael Shellenberger, who’s articles have appeared in many prestigious publications, from Scientific American to The Wall Street Journal, recently confronted some painful truths. In his Forbes magazine article titled, “Why Climate Activists Threaten Endangered Species with Extinction,” he provides serious food for thought.
If we’re truly concerned about preventing extinctions, how can we ignore wind turbine threats to migratory bats, insects and large, high-conservation value birds?
None of the American bat species most affected by turbines have any legal protection, despite potentially serious environmental costs of their loss.
Even in the rare instances when governments require industries to mitigate their impacts, there is often little or no reported enforcement.
Wind developers are allowed to self-report kills while withholding findings from the public.
While the industry has hyped technical fixes, none has yet proven broadly successful. Only low wind speed curtailment has offered real hope for bats (though it is usually allowed only in experiments and is not used broadly during facility operations).
Environmental journalists and organizations deserve significant blame for suggesting wind problems are small or being solved.
Wind farms require 400 times more space than nuclear power facilities which have a far better environmental record and are more effective in decarbonizing energy.
Yes, I too was once influenced by sensational media reporting that opposed nuclear power, but decades of experience tell a different story. We have yet to find a source of truly green energy, and each has its own unique risks.
When promoting wind energy, we often ignore the resources required to build even one turbine, approximately 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete, and 45 tons of non-recyclable plastic, not to mention the energy required for extraction and transport to distant locations. Turbines are built from non-renewable materials that wear out and eventually must be replaced. As currently envisioned conversion to renewable energy would require the biggest expansion of mining the world has ever seen as well as huge quantities of waste and inevitable pollution.
We urgently do need to reduce our global assault on the natural systems required for our survival. But atmospheric carbon dioxide is only one of many threats. We pollute our environment with billions of pounds of pesticides, herbicides, and industrial toxicants annually and carelessly destroy forests essential to carbon removal.
In fact, a recently published report in the journal Science, suggests that curbing deforestation and planting more trees is the cheapest, most effective way to tackle the climate crisis. In equatorial regions bats play key roles in reforestation.
One of the worst examples of lax government enforcement of environmental legislation protecting bats involves non-enforcement of “incidental take” permits. These are issued to protect against accidental killing or harm to a federally listed endangered species by an otherwise lawful project. In the case of wind farm impacts on bats, developers are required to submit a Habitat Conservation Plan. Even good plans too often fail to be implemented or enforced. At a specific site, there is a specified number of endangered bats that can be legally killed. Beyond that number, a company must pay a fine for each additional individual.
In proposing new wind farms, developers often promise ridiculously low bat kills, knowing that government agencies often will simply raise the allowed number when permitted rates are exceeded.