Monday, Jul 16, 2018
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Birds, bats, and wind turbines often compete for airspace

It’s human nature, this ongoing collision course that for several decades now has pitted North America’s bird and bat lovers against the still somewhat-fledgling — but rapidly growing — wind industry.

Why can’t we all just get along?

First, there’s the money.

Birding is big business, generating billions of dollars for regional economies across the United States and Canada. Economic development officials in those regions love birding for the simple fact that visitors come from all over the world, spend a lot of money, and leave a relatively small footprint.

Wind power is big business too, and — in a relatively short time — has gone from almost novelty status to a big player on the global energy scene.

According to a new America Wind Energy Association report, the industry’s first quarter of 2018 was “a high water mark in recent years.” It said wind power has become even more of a darling among major utilities and Fortune 500 companies than it was a decade ago because the cost of producing electricity from those giant commercial-scale machines that dot the landscape has fallen two-thirds since 2009. And what can be more environmentally friendly than wind and solar power, right?

Well, to understand why there’s such conflict between avian interests and wind power, look no further than here in northwest Ohio and especially along the western Lake Erie shoreline between Monroe and Sandusky, where at least two major North American flyways and the habitat for birds rank among the most valuable in the world.

The battlefront in this region has become a microcosm of the larger, political tug-of-war over valuable land and airspace that many people agree is probably going to get worse before it gets better.

That’s because the best wind resources to spin those huge turbine blades often lies in the same geographic areas where anything from tiny songbirds to mighty hawks have been programmed by their DNA to fly almost since the beginning of time.

“We can have renewable energy, but it has to be the right renewable energy,” said Kim Kaufman, Black Swamp Bird Observatory executive director.

The quest for peace and harmony on this issue begins with a common three-word mantra: Location, location, location.

A 2005 U.S. Government Accountability Office report concluded the first generation of commercial-scale turbines — built in the Altamont Pass mountain region of northern California around 1980 — essentially became the poster child for bad siting.

Turbine blades there have killed thousands upon thousands of birds. The problem was blamed on their proximity to well-established flyways and to the lattice design of the machines, which experts said exacerbated the problem by encouraging birds to land on them.

The industry went to a single-pole design. But bird activists such as Ms. Kaufman and Mark Shieldcastle, Black Swamp Bird Observatory research director, contend the carnage hasn’t stopped and now encourage the industry to develop something other than a fan-shaped machine.

“The wind industry should put money into research and development to come up with something other than the fan design,” said Mr. Shieldcastle, who also ran the state of Ohio’s bald eagle recovery program years ago.

The wind-energy association, though, contends that climate-altering pollution released by coal-fired power plants and other types of fossil-burning sources has done more to kill birds and bats than wind turbines.

“No form of energy generation is free from impact,” according to the association, which also cites buildings, power lines, cars, pesticide poisoning, and radio and cell towers as major sources of bird and bat deaths.

The Black Swamp Bird Observatory twice partnered with the American Bird Conservancy on legal action that ultimately persuaded the Ohio National Guard to drop its plans for erecting a commercial-scale, $1.5 million wind turbine at Camp Perry, a project the groups considered critical because of the camp’s proximity to the shoreline. They couldn’t stop two turbines from being erected at the adjacent Lake Erie Business Park, though. Dozens exist in Ontario, on the Canadian side of Lake Erie.

The observatory also has been active in fighting a proposed offshore wind project in Lake Erie near Cleveland, as well as dozens of turbines in Van Wert and Paulding counties near the Indiana state line, and plans for dozens of turbines in Seneca, Sandusky, and Huron counties. The Ohio Power Siting Board has received applications for numerous wind farms across the state in recent months, with developers waiting to see if the Ohio General Assembly will relax what they consider to be excessive setback rules.

Audubon’s website said that group “strongly supports properly sited wind power as a renewable energy source that helps reduce the threats posed to birds and people by climate change.” But it said it also advocates “that wind power facilities should be planned, sited, and operated in ways that minimize harm to birds and other wildlife, and we advocate that wildlife agencies should ensure strong enforcement of the laws that protect birds and other wildlife.”

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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