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OTHER OPINION: Wind farms: Are they for the birds?

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What’s worse than planting 40 million prime crop acres with biofuel corn crops, laced with artificial fertilizers and pesticides, to provide just 6 percent of our gasoline supply?

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It’s planting hundreds of bird and bat killing wind farms in the same corridor as the Mississippi and Central Flyways, two of the most important migratory bird routes in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), charged with protecting species under the Endangered Species Act, is evaluating a plan to allow a 200-mile wide corridor for wind energy development from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The notion of a great swath of Midwestern wind turbines originated with oil tycoon, T. Boone Pickens, who spent millions publicizing his program. It was later abandoned because even with substantial subsidies, it was not competitive. Undeterred, the FWS will now consider permits sought by 19 federally subsidized wind energy developers for projects in the same area. These permits would allow constructing turbines (up to 400 feet tall) and associated transmission lines on non-federal lands in nine states from Montana to Texas. The turbine placements directly encroach on the migratory route of endangered Whooping Cranes and other bird species. Each of these permits would allow a project to “take” an unspecified number of birds, taking being the FWS euphemism for killing or injuring.

Nationwide, about 200,000 birds are killed by wind farms each year, according to the American Bird Conservancy. In California’s Altamont Pass, the Los Angeles Times reports the death count for golden eagles alone is “67 a year for three decades.”  The wildlife service does note that the leading cause of death for Whooping Cranes is above ground utility lines, not wind turbines.  But the service fails to grasp the irony in the fact that each new wind farm requires its own new network of bird killing power lines.

Bats are also hurt by the turbines. Pennsylvania’s 420 wind turbines killed more than 10,000 bats last year — mostly in the late summer months, according to the state game commission.  

This new flyway assault on North American wildlife might be justified if it would relieve some national energy emergency. But there is no emergency as energy demand is flat, and there is ample U.S. electric power capacity. And wind energy wouldn’t relieve any shortage. Erratic and expensive wind power requires substantial taxpayer support, and wind power struggles to provide more than a low single digit percentage of our electric power.  New wind capacity also requires an equal amount of backup supply, usually from natural gas peaker plants, to fill in the gaps when wind output is too low or too high to feed a carefully balanced electric grid.

As to environmental benefit, a new study from Bentek Corporation shows increases in CO2 emissions with the introduction of wind plants in Colorado and Texas. The Bentek study is based on actual results for the Public Service of Colorado system in Colorado and from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). The study found that the constant cycling of backup fossil fuel plants increased fuel consumption and harmful emissions.

Xcel Energy Inc. took responsible action when a wind farm’s threat to two endangered bird species was discovered.  Xcel canceled plans to fund EnXco Inc. to build the $400 million, 150 MW Merricourt wind farm in southeastern North Dakota. There was another good reason to avoid this project.  It didn’t make financial sense.

At wind’s U.S. average capacity factor of 27 percent, the Merricourt wind farm would produce about 360 million erratic kilowatt hours per year. At current wholesale power rates, that yields gross annual revenue of about $18 million.  Annual interest, depreciation, maintenance, and operations for the project could total more than $40 million, although some of the loss is covered by taxpayer subsidies. American taxpayers and Xcel Energy shareholders and rate payers should offer thanks to the birds.

ROLF WESTGARD is a resident of Deerwood, a professional member, Geological Society of America and a member of the Brainerd Dispatch advisory board.

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Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson joined the Brainerd Dispatch in April 2010 and works as a online reporter, content editor and staff writer. She is a world traveler, accused idealist and California native now braving the winters of Central Minnesota. She believes in the power of human resolve and hopes to be part of something that makes history by bringing an end to injustice in the world. Sarah has worked as a criminal background researcher, high school civics teacher, grant writer, and contributing writer with Causecast.org — tackling every issue from global poverty to bio-degradable bicycles. Her favorite thing about living in Minnesota is July. Sarah left the Brainerd Dispatch in April 2014.
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