Renewable Energy Is No Silver Bullet

Published on September 17th, 2013

It is an article of faith among mainstream environmental groups and Chief Pontificator Al Gore that renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are “green,” as in, environmentally friendly. According to this faith, transitioning ASAP to these green, renewable sources would not only save the climate, but also would ensure industrial civilization’s survival by connecting it to clean, inexhaustible energy sources that will last literally as long as our sun does – billions of years, give or take a few.

Voilà! Crisis averted! Onto the next Great Challenge! Or as Buzz Lightyear might proclaim, “To Infinity, and Beyond!” It all sounds so logical and appealing … and too good to be true.

The eagles bear witness to this unfortunate reality.

A recent study published in the Journal of Raptor Research by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists concludes that wind farms in ten states have killed at least 85 eagles since 1997. The majority of these deaths occurred between 2008 and 2012, as the wind industry was expanding rapidly, encouraged by the federal renewable electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC). Most of the mortalities – 79 of them – occurred when golden eagles struck spinning wind turbines.

The eagle toll is probably much higher, according to the study’s authors. Wind energy companies report eagle deaths voluntarily, and actual searches for dead birds are not conducted comprehensively so that tallies can systematically count carcasses before they disappear. Moreover, the new study excludes the single deadliest place in the country for golden eagles, a notorious cluster of wind farms in northern California known as Altamont Pass, between the towns of Livermore and Tracy along Interstate 580.

Wind farms are industrial-scale aggregations of wind turbines that can reach several hundred feet skyward – taller than a football field is long and as high as a 30-story building. Though their blades appear to be revolving slowly, the tips can actually attain speeds of 170 mph, causing small tornado-like vortexes that can ensnare birds flying too close.

The new research also confirms an investigation by AP earlier in the year, which revealed that the Obama administration was neither fining nor prosecuting wind energy companies for eagle mortalities, even though these deaths violate federal law, specifically the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Wind energy, of course, is an integral part of President Obama’s plans to fight climate change.

In response to the study, the American Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group, claims that other factors cause far more eagle deaths than wind turbines. The association also says it is working with conservationists and the government to reduce eagle mortality. Both claims are true.

But the larger point is this: ALL energy sources have environmental impacts. NONE is 100% clean and green. Wind farms also kill bats in large numbers at some sites, and blight picturesque mountain scenery at others. They fragment habitat, cause noise and vibration with potential human health effects, and can even disrupt radar. Solar energy facilities consume vast amounts of land and habitat. All renewables depend on rare, depleting and toxic elements (the “rare earths”) to manufacture or operate their high-tech components, like neodymium magnets in wind turbines. Yet despite these downsides, I believe renewables are still preferable to continued dependence on fossil fuels. They’re a dead end, literally.

Big environmental groups, by and large, endorse renewables enthusiastically and uncritically. They think renewables give them a “pass” from having to oppose population growth, because we can convert our economy to wind and solar, and meet ever-growing energy demand by an ever-growing population, all without impact.

They need to think again. The eagles are coming.

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