Tilting at the Appalachian Windmills


With the rising demand for renewable, domestic energy sources and the recent passage of federal tax breaks for renewable energy, windpower has resurfaced as a promising solution to America’s energy problems. The Department of Energy’s goal is that windpower generate 5% of American energy by 2020. In the Western US, windpower is firmly entrenched. Colorado’s Vail Resorts recently became the second largest corporate buyer of wind energy credits in the nation and has begun to offer incentives to employees to convert to windpower in their daily lives. Other Western states like California, Wyoming, Oregon, and Montana have also embraced windpower as a clean, reliable generator of electricity. It would seem that for some parts of the nation, wind energy is here to stay.

In Appalachia, however, wind energy has become the focus of an increasingly bitter debate between wind energy advocates and conservationists. Several major projects, particularly those in western Maryland, have been stymied by a host of concerns ranging from esthetics to bat conservation. Although coal-powered energy, by its very nature, can’t last, it’s not clear to many that wind energy in Appalachia will solve the problem of our continued reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels.

Making the case for wind power

There are six wind energy plants online in Appalachia and 15 more slated for development. If all proposed projects come online, around 1000 turbines may top the ridgelines of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, providing enough electricity for 600 homes. Some states have legislated that renewable energy must comprise a certain percentage of their energy generation. Maryland, for instance, has enacted laws that say 7.5% of energy sold in the state must be generated by renewable energy by 2019.

Advocates say that wind energy is the solution to the economic and energy problems many Appalachian communities face. Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), a community group in the coal fields of West Virginia, feels strongly that wind energy is critical to transition from coal to clean energy, while creating a viable economic and environmental future for West Virginia’s citizens. Judy Bonds, Executive Director of CRMW, feels that wind power is a critical alternative to mountaintop removal mining, which damages ecosystems, human health, and viewsheds. In an impassioned response to the debate over wind vs. coal, Bonds says: “As far as I know, wind turbines haven’t poisoned unborn children with mercury like coal.”

“The air that comes out of wind turbines is as clean as the air that goes into the wind turbine,” Bonds said. “The anti- wind people need to come live in the coalfields, come walk in our shoes and look at our viewshed, come spend a sleepless night during rain storms beneath a huge coal waste sludge dam, fearing that dam’s failure. “

CRMW and many other advocates feel that the struggle for wind is one of class and privilege. People opposed to wind power are often landowners or others with personal stakes who don’t take into account the daily horror of living in the coalfields. When weighed against the damaging effects of mountaintop removal mining, and the terrible losses incurred at disasters like the breaking of the coal sludge dam at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia in 1972, wind energy truly seems like the best chance at hope for renewable, safe, economically viable energy.

Concerns about impacts of wind power

Conservationists often tell a different story when it comes to wind energy. Many worry about destruction of critical ridgeline habitats, which are home to some of Appalachia’s most unique flora and fauna. There are also concerns about tourism. Developed ridgelines and altered viewsheds may impact many areas that depend heavily on ecotourism.

Scientists are particularly concerned about the effects of wind energy on birds and bats. Wind turbines have long had a reputation for causing bird mortality, particularly of raptors. In California, around 1000 raptors are lost each year at Altamont Pass, one of the first wind power plants to come online. David Brandes of Lafayette College notes that “Research shows that raptors have problems with ‘motion smear’—although they have fantastic eyesight, they do not see fast-moving turbine blade tips and are thus vulnerable to strikes.”

But in Appalachia, birds face additional challenges. Though raptors still incur the greatest losses, songbirds are also at great risk due to their use of the mountains as migratory routes. Since they often migrate at night, songbirds use the mountain ridges and valleys as navigational cues, flying low under the cloud cover. This type of montaine channeling could be hazardous to night-migrating birds. Bill Evans, Executive Director of Old Bird, Inc., has completed five studies on avian night migration and feels “Wind turbines can be a problem for birds if they are sited where high densities of birds are responding to montaine channeling. Most of these dynamics could theoretically be studied before turbine siting, but more research has been done in Europe than the US.”

The study of night migration is in its infancy and very little is known about how altering or blocking avian migratory routes might affect populations. It’s also been documented that birds are often drawn to permanent lighting near such towers, especially in bad weather. Still, bird mortality from wind turbines pales in comparison to that caused by communications towers—nearly 2 to 4 million birds die each year in the eastern US, according to towerkill.com.

Perhaps the most alarming result of wind energy has been the extraordinarily high mortality rate for Appalachian bats. In a study at Mountaineer Wind Energy Center on Backbone Mountain in West Virginia, bat biologists were distressed to discover that almost 2000 bats had been killed in 2004 alone. What seemed strangest during the study was that bat deaths were highest on nights of low wind, when the turbines were still spinning but not generating any electricity. Bat Conservation International (BCI) president and founder Merlin Tuttle noted in a 2005 article that the bats “…sometimes chased harmlessly after the tips of slow-moving blades as though investigating the inexplicable devices.” Many deaths, observed via thermal imaging cameras, seem to result from this curiosity. Thus far, neither lights nor sound act as deterrants.

In comparison to other parts of the country, the loss of so many bats at Mountaineer is staggering. Bat Conservation International (BCI) estimates that if the proposed number of around 1000 turbines come online in Appalachia, over 50,000 bats could die annually. Slow to reproduce and highly sensitive to disturbance, bat populations cannot sustain such losses over time.

The Catch-22

More research is certainly ahead. Many people feel that windpower in Appalachia is inevitable. It provides a transition from dependency on coal and other fossil fuels, and creates a source of relatively inexpensive, pollution-free, locally-generated electricity. It also could provide vital jobs in a traditionally economically-depressed region and free many people from the horror of living with mountaintop removal.

Many national environmental groups, like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, have taken an unprecedented stance in defending wind energy in Appalachia. They point to global warming as a concern that takes precedence over regional environmental concerns. The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) approach, according to many of these groups, is no longer feasible. Some areas may have to make sacrifices for the greater environmental good.

In the long run, those sacrifices may be fewer than the problems encountered because of mountaintop removal.

Research is ongoing, and the Bat Wind Energy Cooperative (BWEC) is one model of a problem-solving partnership between wind energy industries and conservationists. With such careful cooperation and attention, we may not be tilting at windmills after all.

Wind Power by Numbers

1.5-MW Turbine
Generation: 3.7 million kWh (25 years: 92 million kWh)
CO2 Displaced: 2,280 tons (25 years: 57,000 tons) *
Homes Served (equivalent): 345
Acres of Forest Required to Achieve Same CO2 Displacement: 775 **
Tons of Coal to Generate Same Electricity: 1,900 (25 years: 47,000)
Coal Cars: 16 (25 years: 395)
Coal Train Length: 1/6 mile (25 years: 4 miles)
Barrels of Oil for the same electricity: 5,900 (25 years: 147,000)

100-MW Wind Farm
Generation: 245 million kWh (25 years: 6.1 billion kWh)
CO2 displaced: 152,000 tons (25 years: 3.8 million tons) *
Homes served (equivalent): 23,000
Acres of forest to achieve same CO2 displacement: 7,844 **
Tons of coal for same electricity: 125,000 (25 years: 3.1 million)
Coal cars: 1,000 (25 years: 26,000)
Coal train length: 10.6 miles (25 years: 265 miles)
Barrels of Oil for the same electricity: 392,000 (25 years: 9.8 million)


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