Saturday, October 15, 2005

Wind power isn't a panacea?

In California's Altamont Pass there's a long-running experiment in alternative energy resources. There are hundreds of wind generators that collectively generate around 5 megawatts of electricity. I live nearby and regularly drive through the pass, so they are a familiar sight in my life.

It is such a beautiful idea. The wind blows, spins a machine, and the machine makes electricity. No muss, no fuss, and you can still use the ground for other purposes such as the cattle grazing on those same hillsides. Cleanly produced electricity that can be made anywhere.

The problem are the bird-kills at the site. The level of bird-kills in the Altamont Pass site has tarnished wind energy in general with a meme of the towers being unsafe to birds.

Unexpected Downside of Wind Power (Will Wade, Wired News, 02:00 AM Oct. 14, 2005 PT)

This article covers a plan to study the bird-kills in a new way. The situation in the Altamont Pass site has already been studied carefully, learning several useful things about the siting and design of towers. Newer towers don't have the problems the very old towers at Altamont have, plus there is a lot of knowledge now about where to place the towers so they aren't near birds to begin with.

In this new study they plan to shut down portions of the wind farm. Assumably as each set of towers are shut down, they're going to compare bird-kills and learn some more about which tower design is worse or better.

Altamont isn't the only scene of a showdown. Environmental groups have already blocked a proposed wind-power facility in the Mojave Desert, and opponents of another project, in Nantucket Sound, have cited wildlife concerns in their lobbying efforts. A recent government report found that sites in other regions could pose a threat to bats.

Clearly wind energy is turning out to be a mixed blessing to environmentalists. On the one hand it offers such cleanly generated electricity, how could any environmentalist complain? Well, we can't lose sight of the big picture, and often a solution to one problem creates problems elsewhere. That's what is happening, the environmentalists are perhaps saying "wait a minute, let's not create more problems here, let's study and see how to solve both problems". Though, in the case of the Nantucket project, the opponents strike me as being more worried about their property values (supposedly the wind towers are ugly) and not the birds.

e.g.: Miller stressed that the Center for Biological Diversity is not opposed to wind farms, but said they must be built in areas where they will have minimal impact on wildlife. "We definitely support wind power, but it needs to be sited in appropriate areas."

Here's to more truth, and here's to clean energy.