Thursday, October 27, 2011

Blackpoll Warbler kill at wind farm

AES Corporation's Laurel Mountain Wind Farm, photo from West Virginia Highlands Conservancy website.

The massive Laurel Mountain Wind Farm, near Elkins, West Virginia was just opened officially with a ribbon-cutting ceremony today, but it's already making news in a most ungreenfriendly way. Word is leaking out regarding a massive kill of migratory songbirds that took place about two weeks ago at one of the turbine farm's installations. According to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, 484 birds perished after striking a structure associated with this twelve mile string of 61 mountaintop turbines. Most of the birds were Blackpoll Warblers. Blackpolls are champions of long distance migration, breeding to the northern limits of the boreal forest in Canada, Alaska, and in the northeastern lower states, mostly in New England. Their migration is an epic journey that spans much of the Americas, with the birds ending up in South America where they overwinter.

Not all the facts seem to be out yet - and I'm not sure why it took two weeks for this tragedy to come to light - but it appears that the birds were NOT killed by being pureed after flying into a spinning turbine. As the farm was just officially dedicated TODAY, I'm not sure that the turbines were even fired up and spinning two weeks ago.

Apparently a bank of bright lights that are used to provide illumination at a substation were left on overnight during cloudy, low-visibility conditions. The birds became disoriented by the lights - a common occurrence with brightly lit structures - and perished after flying into the building. Even though it apparently was not the turbines themselves that caused this disaster, it should serve as a red flag. Large numbers of songbirds migrate along Allegheny and Appalachian mountain ridges, and clearly lots of birds pass through the Laurel Mountain turbine gauntlet. Future occurrences of this type should be avoidable by merely turning the lights off, at least during peak migratory periods. But it is a huge open question as to whether birds will still strike the spinning turbines at night. I hope that someone conducts diligent monitoring at this farm to determine whether this kill will prove to be an isolated incident, or if indeed we have another Altamont Pass on our hands.

Industry, environmental groups, and politicians alike are rushing pell-mell into the supposedly "green" wind industry. Ohio is one of the front lines, as many a plan is afoot to site turbines along, and in, Lake Erie. And Lake Erie is one of THE major migratory corridors for birds in the Great Lakes region. I think that sites do exist where wind turbines probably will not cause much, if any, bird or bat mortality. But it is becoming increasingly demonstrable that some of the best locations for harvesting wind are also major migratory pathways for birds, and wind farms and birds mix about as well as oil and water.

Poorly sited wind farms are akin to fracking the air. The collateral damage to migratory animals can be unacceptable in terms of outright kills. But another factor that is seldom written about involves the terrestrial fragmentation that comes with the installation of these facilities (this includes fracking, too). Access roads must be carved into forests or Great Plains prairie, large footprints must be stamped out for the physical facilities, and towers and wires strung or buried to transmit the electricity. Individually, it is hard - maybe impossible - to prove ecological damage caused by a single turbine installation. But add them all up and we start to instigate death by a thousand cuts, at least for some species.

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16 comments:

auntcindy said...

Thanks for sharing this sad important story.

Beyond My Garden said...

People keep talking like wind power is the perfect answer to everything - "clean" "unlimited" People think we're crazy to say it isn't perfect. If they would at least keep it away from major migration routes.
nellie

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments. After writing the piece, I learned that this wind farm has been up and running for a few months. So the turbines were spinning at the time of the Blackpoll catastrophe, but the official line is that the mortality was NOT due to spinning blades.

WCFN said...

Nine years of experience on the subject of bird and bat mortality at windfarms have taught me one thing: do not trust the official line.

They tell us the birds were killed hitting a one story building (the electrical substation) in an environment where 150-feet wind turbine blades were spinning at anywhere from 100 to 200 mph at the tip. Sounds likely to you?

Why do you think they waited 2 weeks to leak the story? - They needed to get the "stakeholders" to agree on what would be said. This includes AWEA (the wind lobby), USFWS (the government), and the bird societies (all in favour of windfarms, and receiving millions of dollars each year for their "cooperation").

Now they are working hard on the text of a press release. The truth is not always easy to cover up...

If you want to know the truth about birds and windfarms, check this webpage:

www.savetheeaglesinternational.org

Donna Williamson said...

Jim:
I understand in some places the turbines are stopped during migration. Perhaps these folks are just stupid and need some education?

Donna

Jan Kennedy said...

Hi Jim, Good post. Did you say fracking, (not once, but twice)?! Well that sure piqued my interest.

Good comments, too.

Caitlin Coberly said...

Thanks for sharing the info. We do need to be careful where we site wind turbines, and we do need to be very careful to turbines the lights off. However, we need to think about how we will power this country for the next 20-50 years. Conservation and local renewable energy should be our first choice, but if we do not take control, we will get coal and gas fired power plants which cause 2-3 cents per KW hour in human health effects (asthma, emphysema, etc.)(National Acedemy of Sciences Report on Unrecovered Costs of Energy Production 2010). This is about like adding 30% to your utility bill, and it affects your health. Wind energy has a lot lower environmental impacts than most energy sources (see the NSYRDA report on comparative ecological effects of energy production ~2009). So yes, let us be careful where we site wind turbines, but let us also consider all the alternatives carefully.

Dan Boone said...

The number of reported dead birds (carcassess found) is likely far less than the actual number of birds killed during this collision mortality event at the AES Laurel Mountain "wind farm". Many of the bird carcassess probably were carried off by scavengers (such as ravens, crows, raccoons, fox, coyotes, etc.) before anyone tried to find them, plus about half or more of the carcasses might have been present but missed by anyone searching for them (due to difficulty in finding bird carcasses that fall into concealing vegetation or rocky terrain.

Also, it is important not to forget that the previous highest-ever bird mortality event involving an industrial wind energy facility occurred on May 23, 2003 at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center atop Backbone Mountain in Tucker County, WV. This bird kill involved the discovery of 29 bird carcasses by University of MD graduate students who were studying the facility in order to assess its wildlife mortality impact (using once-a-week searches of ground below each of this project's 44 wind turbines). However, the detection of the 29 bird carcasses occurred during unscheduled search ONLY AFTER these students were informed by wind turbine maintenance staff of the location where they saw a bobcat carrying away dead birds.

In addition, the report which provided the results of the Mountaineer windplant's wildlife mortality study concluded:
"In contrast, the multiple-fatality event that occurred at the MWEC on May 23, 2003 suggests that sodium vapor lights should never be used at or near wind power facilities. These lights have commonly been shown to attract birds to hotels, ski lifts, water towers, and communication towers in West Virginia as demonstrated by several researchers and the WV DNR. The location of sodium vapor and other non-FAA lighting at or near wind power facilities should be assessed and managed before the wind power facility begins operation." (see p. 20 in: http://www.wvhighlands.org/Birds/MountaineerFinalAvianRpt-%203-15-04PKJK.pdf ).

It's clear that the wind industry ignored this important and widely publicized conclusion, which supposedly evolved into a standard operating procedure for wind energy facilities - see also: http://www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/releases/111028.html .

Some will argue or imply that industrial wind energy facilities have a net positive environmental impact when viewed in relation to the environmental harm caused by natural gas or coal-fired electricity production. However, this is a false comparison given that wind energy is ONLY a supplementary power source within our grid region (PJM). The electric contributions of so-called "wind farms" in our region have not (and will not) result in meaningful reductions of the adverse environmental impacts associated with electric power generated by the burning of fossil fuels. Sadly, no power plants have been shuttered due to wind energy development, and the amount of fossil fuels that power plants annually burn is not projected to decrease in the future.

RL said...

On our yearly trip to Pendleton County,we saw the windmills coming into Elkins.They are massive,and that is seeing them from the bottom of the mountain. I can't find any info now,but I thought I remember reading that these were to only run when the bats are hibernating. The highly lighted substation is baffling,considering all we know about these sort of things in the cities.

Jim McCormac said...

This comment posted on behalf of Dan Boone of Maryland:

The number of reported dead birds (carcassess found) is likely far less than the actual number of birds killed during this collision mortality event at the AES Laurel Mountain "wind farm". Many of the bird carcassess probably were carried off by scavengers (such as ravens, crows, raccoons, fox, coyotes, etc.) before anyone tried to find them, plus about half or more of the carcasses might have been present but missed by anyone searching for them (due to difficulty in finding bird carcasses that fall into concealing vegetation or rocky terrain.

Also, it is important not to forget that the previous highest-ever bird mortality event involving an industrial wind energy facility occurred on May 23, 2003 at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center atop Backbone Mountain in Tucker County, WV. This bird kill involved the discovery of 29 bird carcasses by University of MD graduate students who were studying the facility in order to assess its wildlife mortality impact. However, the searches which detected the 29 bird carcasses occurred ONLY AFTER these students were informed by wind turbine maintenance staff of the location where a bobcat was seen carrying away dead birds.

In addition, the report which provided the results of the Mountaineer windplant's wildlife mortality study concluded:
"In contrast, the multiple-fatality event that occurred at the MWEC on May 23, 2003 suggests that sodium vapor lights should never be used at or near wind power facilities. These lights have commonly been shown to attract birds to hotels, ski lifts, water towers, and communication towers in West Virginia as demonstrated by several researchers and the WV DNR. The location of sodium vapor and other non-FAA lighting at or near wind power facilities should be assessed and managed before the wind power facility begins operation." (see p. 20 in: http://www.wvhighlands.org/Birds/MountaineerFinalAvianRpt-%203-15-04PKJK.pdf ).
It's clear that the wind industry ignored this important and widely publicized conclusion, which supposedly evolved into a standard operating procedure for wind energy facilities - see also: http://www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/releases/111028.html .

Some will argue or imply that industrial wind energy facilities have a net positive environmental impact when viewed in relation to the environmental harm caused by natural gas or coal-fired electricity production. However, this is a false comparison given that wind energy is ONLY a supplementary power source within our grid region (PJM). The electric contributions of so-called "wind farms" in our region have not (and will not) result in meaningful reductions of the adverse environmental impacts associated with electric power generated by the burning of fossil fuels. Sadly, no power plants have been shuttered due to wind energy development, and the amount of fossil fuels that power plants annually burn is not projected to decrease in the future.

Jim McCormac said...

Lots of good comments and I appreciate them all. It's clear that "green" wind energy stamps out large footprints of its own, in addition to sometimes causing outright bird/bat mortality, as was the primary subject of this post.

Anonymous said...

For those not familiar with West Virginia’s growing collection of ridge top wind farms, the Mountaineer wind farm is visible from the AES Laurel Mountain wind farm in question. AES Laurel Mountain is fourth in a string of wind farms starting with Criterion and Roth Rock in Maryland. None of these wind farms is very far from the next in the string. Perhaps the birds were lucky to have made it this far south.

Rick said...

The 2+story arched window in our new high school cafetia in Perry County where I taught for 35yrs was a bird killer,even after we got most of the lights turned off. Never did I see one starling or house sparrow,always hooded,indigo buntings,grosbeaks,you get the ugly picture.Windows+lights+night=bird fatalities.

abby said...

Definitely not a perfect solution, but at least it's a step in the process of trying to find a better alternative to flattening manhattan-sixed swathes of incredibly biodiversity-rich Appalachia and dumping toxic chemicals into adjacent valleys and streams. Mountaintop removal (http://ilovemountains.org/ http://appvoices.org/end-mountaintop-removal/) is such an absolutley sickening process, and I am glad that efforts are being made to find other ways to produce energy. Although wind farms are by no means highly effecient or without significant environmental impact, especialy in highly sensitive migration routes, I feel that it is at the very least a step in the right direction.

Pest Control Portland said...

It's sad to hear that. That windmill is generating a huge amount of power. The community leaders must be able to do something about the birds.

Jeff said...

Dear Jim McCormac, Thanks for letting us know that Wind power is not perfect either, but it is better than mountian top removal for coal. Perhaps thay can better predict when these migrations happen and turn off the turbines, or better placement is needed. Also, putting them on top of a mountian like this is really does destroy the natural view. Do you know what can be done to prevent damage to the enviroment so was can preserve the enviroment and still have enough power for all of us?

Thanks,
Jeff
I love Wind and Solar Power, but we also must conserve energy