Wind energy is a key component of President Obama’s energy policy, with its goals of putting the U.S. on a solid foundation for clean energy, fighting climate change and protecting the environment. The huge turbines can be built with parts made in the U.S.. Wind power is just one way that the U.S. can work toward “energy independence” and in a way that is sustainable and does not sully the air we breathe and heat up the planet.
Given pressing public health concerns about air pollution around the world, the White House’s green energy policy is also key to keeping the U.S. at the forefront of innovation. It’s no wonder that the Obama administration is devoting funds to support the development of wind energy.
Wind turbines can be as tall as a 30-story building, with whirling blades that can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at their tips. Tragically, a number of birds, including at least 20 protected golden eagles, have flown into the turbines and been injured or killed, says a recent Associated Press report that underscores the huge challenges in developing green energy sources.
Wind Farms and Golden Eagles
The blades of wind turbines appear to rotate slowly and the eagles, who “behave like drivers texting on their cellphones” when they’re in flight looking for food, do not see them until it is too late. Rocky Mountain Raptor Program director Michael Tincher tells the AP that he euthanized two golden eagles whom he found starving near the turbines. Eagle expert Grainger Hunt puts it simply: “There is nothing in the evolution of eagles that would come near to describing a wind turbine. There has never been an opportunity to adapt to that sort of threat.”
According to the AP, the wind farms have been the cause of 14 eagle deaths at seven facilities in California; five deaths each in New Mexico and Oregon, one in Washington state and another in Nevada “where an eagle was found with a hole in its neck, exposing the bone.” The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently investigating 18 cases of bird deaths caused by wind power facilities and referred seven to the Justice Department.
What Should Be Done About Eagle Deaths Due to Wind Turbines?
Needless to say, these incidents raise a huge dilemma as the U.S. moves forward in developing green energy. The likes of Fox News has been quick to contend that there’s a discrepancy in the Obama administration’s response to wind farms vs. oil companies. Golden eagles are protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (which makes the single death of one bird illegal) and the government has had PacifiCorp, which operates coal plants in Wyoming, pay more than $10.5 million in fines after 232 eagles were electrocuted by the company’s power lines.
In the interest of moving forward with its green energy policy, the White House has not been requiring wind power companies to disclose how many birds are killed. According to the AP, the government has also proposed a rule that would give wind-energy companies a dispensation in the deaths of birds, by allowing for them to apply for 30-year permits under which they would be allowed to kill a set number of bald or golden eagles. Previously, they could only receive five-year permits.
How Can We Make Wind Farms Safer For Birds?
There is another discrepancy that goes unmentioned by those who claim green energy providers are getting some sort of preferential treatment. It is certainly problematic that many — the Wildlife Society Bulletin‘s March report says 573,000 — birds are dying because of wind turbines, but the U.S. cannot expect to rely on coal and oil in the long term or in the short term for their energy needs. Our planet’s environment and our health have already and continue to be damaged from the burning of coal and emissions from vehicles. It could be said that the fines that PacifiCorp and other companies have had to pay are just the tip of the iceberg of what they “owe” for destroying the ozone layer.
One thing that can be done is to develop more options for eagles, hawks and migratory birds when they are in the vicnity of wind turbines. One wind power facility, Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm in Wyoming — which is under investigation by the federal government for killing birds – is trying to take steps to protect eagles.
Some methods the company is using includes telling workers to drive more slowly so eagles will not be scared from their roosts; removing rock piles where the bird’s prey lives; using radar technology to detect eagles. Duke Energy is also considering blaring loud music to prevent the birds from flying too close to the turbines. It also shut off 13 turbines for a week in March, a particular deadly time for eagles; according to the company, no eagles were killed that month. Could the eagles’ behavior be studied and a plan developed to periodically shut down wind turbines?
Of course, we need golden eagles and hawks and migratory birds. As Rob Manes, who runs the Kansas office for The Nature Conservancy also says, “we need renewable energy in this country.”
Photo from Thinkstock