Commentary by Chris Bolgiano, Bay Journal News Service
Like a small Christo installation, Charley's mist net unfurled into dusk along my forest road in the Appalachian Mountains. The net traps birds—in this case, a northern saw-whet owl—lured in by tape-recorded calls. The persistent high-pitched beeps of saw-whets sound like a dump truck backing up.
Saw-whets inhabit much of North America. Some migrate south in winter, as this one was trying to do, along mountain ridges. "We think they must fly fairly low, to hear our recorder," said Charley, a local ornithologist. "That's what concerns us about wind turbines proposed on top of the mountains around here."
Around the world, industrial wind plants are the fastest growing form of alternative energy. They make electricity without producing greenhouse gases, but how truly green they are depends on where they are located.
Some turbines out west routinely kill thousands of birds, and rare sagebrush grouse stand to lose their most important habitat to concrete grids of turbine pads. Along eastern mountain ridges beneath migratory flyways, more bats and songbirds are killed by turbines than anywhere else in the world.
Everywhere that people live near turbines, some complain about inaudible but palpable low frequency vibrations, which penetrate buildings and cause insomnia.
Like a Bauhaus building in the middle of Mayberry, 500- foot-tall industrial machines may not fit all landscapes. Even where winds are high and human and wildlife densities are low, like some western plains, turbines are far from cities and require hundreds of miles of expensive new transmission lines.
The density of saw-whet owls here in the Appalachians, like much else about saw-whets, is not well known. Saw-whets are shy birds, and calm in the face (mine) of immense disadvantage. The owl in my hands blinks once, solemnly.
It is this image I carry to meetings of a county committee to write an ordinance regulating industrial wind installations. I'm one of two county citizens on this committee; the eight other members all represent wind companies. This proved a disadvantage when votes were called.
My angst about their proposals for turbines on Shenandoah Mountain about ten miles away, where the federal government has already warned that endangered species are likely to be killed, is sometimes derided as a NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) response. I confess to loving Shenandoah Mountain, and clearcutting, blasting, bulldozing and cementing over many acres for miles along this globally unique mountaintop is not appealing.
But I also calculate a simple balance sheet of destroying too much for too little, when a staggeringly better wind option is available.
The Wind Resource Map of the National Renewable Energy Lab shows the greatest winds not on land, but along both seacoasts. Offshore winds are far stronger than almost all land locations. Massive turbines are easier to transport over water than land, requiring no controversial deforestation or road building.
Power-hungry coastal cities are nearby, reducing lines and line loss. And unlike on land, offshore winds blow in summer, when electricity demand is heaviest due to air-conditioning.
Reports by various nonprofit and academic think-tanks show enormous energy efficiencies for offshore versus onshore wind. In my home state of Virginia, for example, offshore winds could supply 142 percent of our 2007 electricity demand, compared to 15 percent onshore. Similar statistics apply to nearby states.
Yet of the thousands of turbines now operating across the eastern United States, with tens of thousands more planned thanks to federal subsidies, virtually all are on land.
"Anchoring offshore costs significantly more," a wind developer told me, especially off the Pacific coast where waters are deeper than in the Atlantic.
Some in the wind industry, however, are beginning to recognize the greater revenue potential linked to higher production offshore, especially along the coasts of Maine, Delaware, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Maryland. Governors of those states recently endorsed offshore projects, potentially even exporting electricity to neighboring non-coastal states.
Even Massachusetts, where the first proposed offshore turbines were aesthetically rejected by wealthy shoreline owners, has endorsed a 468 megawatt project in Nantucket Sound. Eight years of wildlife studies there offer a research model to address the biggest wildlife impact identified by nearly twenty years of European offshore experience: Avoiding locations close to seabird breeding, feeding, or migratory rest areas.
Most projects are being planned ten or more miles offshore, so beachgoers won't notice them.
The saw-whet owl is as light in my hand as &hellip well, feathers. If we're going to sacrifice some birds somewhere, wouldn't it be wise to go where we can gain the greatest good while doing the least harm? Being renewable is necessary but insufficient for true greenness. Sustaining viable populations of both saw-whets and seabirds must be a basic standard for deep green wind power.
Chris Bolgiano, Faculty Emeritus at James Madison University, lives in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Several of her five books have won literary prizes.