Wind power's giant turbines create debate - Some tout alternative energy; bird advocates voice concern

As wildlife advocates demand more studies of avian mortality from wind turbines, the federal government has blocked plans for several wind farms in Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest on the grounds that the giant turbines could interfere with military radar.

Not long ago, the nuclear industry was wind power's primary critic. Now, questions are being raised by bird lovers and Pentagon officials.

As wildlife advocates demand more studies of avian mortality from wind turbines, the federal government has blocked plans for several wind farms in Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest on the grounds that the giant turbines could interfere with military radar.

Is trouble ahead for the nation's fastest-growing form of alternative energy? Or is wind power simply getting more attention because it's becoming a major player in the nation's energy market?

"It means it's ready for prime time," said Bill Spratley, executive director of Green Energy Ohio, a nonprofit group behind the state's push for more alternative energy forms.

The industry's mantra: "If not wind, then what?"

Wind power is America's fastest-growing energy source, but still accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation's power. By 2020, its market share is expected to be 6 percent, the federal Government Accountability Office has said.

Supporters see it as a cheap, clean alternative to foreign oil, natural gas, coal-fired power plants, and nuclear power.

Although wind power bills itself as ecologically superior to nuclear power, Ohio's top bald eagle researcher calls the wind industry "a tremendous eater of land."

"It would take [almost] 600 turbines to replace Davis-Besse," said Mark Shieldcastle, of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station in Ottawa County. "You're talking 10 times as much land use and habitat as a nuclear plant."

The nuclear industry, which has long scoffed at the idea of wind competing with it someday, is heavily promoting itself as the antithesis of the coal-fired power plants that emit greenhouse gases causing global warming. Nuclear opponents, though, claim that's all a public relations spin job because of huge energy needs for enriching the uranium in nuclear fuel.

Twenty percent of America's electric power comes from nuclear plants. Nuclear advocates hope that figure will rise as the United States faces more pressure from other countries to do more about global warming.

Mr. Shieldcastle isn't sold on wind as a technology. "It's not the green energy the propaganda machine is purporting," Mr. Shieldcastle said, citing the amount of energy necessary for production of wind turbines and the amount of oil needed for lubricating turbine blades.

The average commercial-sized wind turbine, like the four near Bowling Green, generates 1.7 megawatts of power.

Davis-Besse, operated in Ottawa County by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., generates 950 megawatts. Detroit Edison Co.'s Fermi II nuclear plant in northern Monroe County generates 1,108 megawatts.

Mr. Shieldcastle is one of several high-profile speakers scheduled for Ohio's first major conference about wind power's impact on wildlife. The conference runs June 27 through 29 at the Medical University of Ohio's Dana Conference Center.

Participating agencies include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Ohio DNR.

Other speakers are to include Chandler S. Robbins, lead author of Birds of North America: A Guide for Field Identification, Revised and Updated; Gary Gulezian, director of the U.S. EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago; U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo); and Merlin Tuttle, founder of Austin-based Bat Conservation International.

One of the organizers, Megan Seymour, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Ohio, said the event was inspired by a GAO report that gave mixed signals about wind power's impact on wildlife.

The GAO report said most problems can be attributed to poorly placed, poorly designed turbines in northern California and the Appalachian Mountain region of West Virginia. Countless raptors and bats have been killed at those two sites, respectively. But the report also said turbines in other parts of the country don't seem to endanger birds and bats more than tall buildings and other stationary objects - a contention that has raised eyebrows among some wildlife experts.

The wind industry is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ohio Department of Development. The latter's interest stems largely from the job-creation potential for the state.

Several European countries have installed huge offshore turbines - with the wingspan of a 747 jetliner - in the Atlantic Ocean.

Similar projects are contemplated for Massachusetts' Cape Cod and the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes region's first conference about offshore wind power was held April 4 and was co-hosted by the Energy Department, primarily for wind industry advocates.

Toledo was chosen as the site for that conference because the city stands in the middle of the wind-power issue. It is on the shore of western Lake Erie. Being the shallowest part of the Great Lakes and in close proximity to electrical transmission lines, Toledo could become attractive to wind industry developers, Ms. Seymour said.

But Toledo is also in the heart of one of North America's most valuable flyways for migratory birds. That, plus the cost of obtaining offshore permits, could dissuade developers, she said.

While land-based turbines are more practical, offshore turbines benefit from stronger winds.

Wildlife advocates are fighting to keep the near-shore from becoming a compromise. They want turbines prohibited within three miles of Lake Erie's shoreline. Putting them farther out into the lake, however, would likely be a problem for maritime shippers.

The Great Lakes Science Center in downtown Cleveland just got its foot in the door. At a cost of $500,000, it put up Ohio's first wind turbine along Lake Erie. The turbine, to be used mostly as a demonstration, started producing electricity on June 9.

Mr. Shieldcastle said he was not pleased by the center's decision to install the turbine. He said it has been "frustrating dealing with them."

Trish Rooney, the center's marketing director, said the turbine is expected to produce 8 percent of the center's energy.

The center is using the turbine, under the Ohio DNR's auspices, for a wildlife-impact study that could take up to three years, said Blake Andres, the center's vice president of education and exhibitions.

"We welcome the opportunity to do the science," he said. "This is really about an exhibit."


JUN 19 2006
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