Wind Energy and its Drawbacks
by Owen Baughman, '03
Last night, as I strolled down the hall of my residence hall at the University of Idaho, I saw a cork-board covered with facts. The title of the board was “Are you Eco-Friendly?”
Striving to be an eco-conscious citizen, I stopped to examine the display. Among the several dozen tidbits, one especially caught my eye. It said “Solar panels covering less than half the state of Nevada could supply our entire country with ample power.”
Despite the fact that this statement was relatively shallow, I found it particularly cutting. You see, I have lived my entire life in Nevada. I have ventured into its practically endless beauty countless times in countless ways and have experienced its land more than many Nevadans have had the chance to. I know that the state is one of the largest chunks of undeveloped public land in the country, and that its Great Basin ecosystems are unlike anything in the world. It is also ranked as the nations eleventh most biodiverse state and as the third most at risk. Perhaps now you can understand why using ‘less than half of the state’ for some logically useless statistic was perturbing to me.
Upon reading the statistic, I scurried back to my room and typed up and printed out a well-reasoned reply and taped it beside the original. The next morning, my addition was gone, and I was left to wonder why. Although I did not save the file, I remember that its last sentence had read “Let’s solve the obvious problem of energy consumption before we run wild looking for better places to get more.” Ok, so it may have been a bit compassionate, but I feel it was just. Why should we go hog-wild to develop new “green energy” when all we have to do is turn off our lights, computers and televisions when we got to work or school? Why do we feel that we need to feed this insatiable beast with clean power when the greenest thing we can do is to simply unplug a few things. Coincidentally, this isn’t the first time I’ve asked that question.
In 2004 and 2005, nearly all of the western states made renewable energy portfolio standards that required the development of renewable energy resources within their states. The standard in my home state of Nevada required that at least 20% of all electricity generated in the state must be from renewable resources by 2013. It must be ‘green energy’. That’s great! Unarguably, it’s a step in the right direction. Nevada is rich with such energy, and has almost no industry to collect it.
Possibly prompted by these new portfolio standards, a company named Nevada Wind and various others have decided to harness the power of the wind to create such energy. What better place to develop such an industry than in the eastern part of Nevada, with its dozens of high elevation and windy ridges, most of which are very accessible and uninhabited? In these respects, it’s a great idea. However, this issue is not that simple.
One area that these companies have set their sights on is known as Telegraph Mountain. About 50 miles north of Ely, Nevada, Telegraph Mountain has many large, high elevation tables and flat ridges, and is a popular spot for hunters, hikers and many other outdoorsmen. It has, according to the head game biologist of the Nevada Division of Wildlife (NDOW) Ely Field Office, “Some very important, high quality summer range for sage grouse and mule deer.” Sage grouse, a species of large native ptarmigan, have recently been the center of many recent concerns, due to their low population and the widespread destruction and fragmentation of their fragile habitat. Telegraph Mountain is a key piece of habitat for these birds.
The plans for development of this ‘green energy’ suggest as many as 150 turbines within about fifteen square miles, placing one tower about every 1,000 feet. Telegraph, as of now, is only accessible by means of one scarcely used craggy, 4-wheel drive road. Upon development, a vast network of maintained roads and other structures will need to accompany the 150 units. This added infrastructure will fragment the sage grouse and mule deer habitat. Sage grouse, unfortunately, have a very low tolerance of man-made structures, regularly used roads, and power lines. NDOW fears that “all of the sage grouse could abandon the habitat.” Even if all the birds don’t leave, the usage of the site will certainly decrease, which works against the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan for Nevada and California - a state government work in progress that took nearly four years to draft. This massive plan is aimed to maintain and protect sage grouse habitat, so it seems strange for the state’s own renewable energy plan to work against it. Mule deer use will also decrease dramatically, which in turn decreases the value of the site as a healthy hunting area.
In addition to habitat fragmentation and destruction, ‘wind farms’ have a tendency to kill many bats, raptors, and other birds. A major raptor migration route leads birds right through this part of the state. When 150 towers - each about 200 feet tall with 160-foot diameter spinning blades - are put in their way, many of them may likely be killed. According to studies conducted by the American Bird Conservancy in their Wind Energy Policy, mortality rates can exceed 7 birds per turbine per year. This figure doesn’t even include birds eliminated through habitat loss and fragmentation.
In short, development of this industry at Telegraph Mountain will turn this high quality habitat into another “poor quality” piece of developed land; and another dead zone along migratory routes. “Among the sites they are considering, Telegraph is the worst place they could do this” concludes NDOW.
When suggested of other, better sites for their industry - sites that have less habitat value and would have less ecological impacts - the companies agreed, saying that ‘those could be additional sites’. The companies are reluctant to consider sites that are less cost efficient even though they may have less environmental impacts. It would be nice to think that the main driver behind the renewable energy industry is the preservation of the environment and our natural resources, but, sadly, like any other industry, maximizing profit seems to take front seat.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against green energy. I want to see more of it. That’s why this issue continues to fester in my mind as some annoying mind puzzle. Along with using less power, I believe that green energy is the right solution for today’s energy and pollution problems. But, on the other hand, what good is green energy when we need to destroy green to get it? Is a bit of energy worth losing key pieces of habitat? Before you think about answering that question, allow me to add yet another angle to this particular issue, because it’s not that simple.
There is, in fact, another side to this Telegraph Mountain wind energy issue. Since 1992, there have been plans for a large power-line corridor to run north-south through Steptoe Valley - the valley immediately east of Telegraph - which would strongly connect some of the main power-grids in the western states. This corridor, known as the Southwest Intertie Project (SWIP), has never been built, due to a lack of sufficient reason. Another pending (near certain) plan would place one or two 1600-kilowatt coal-fire power plants a mere five miles north east of Telegraph. If the wind-power plans develop, then the coal-power plans are more likely to go through. With these, the SWIP line will finally have the prerogative it needs and will almost certainly be built. This massive transmission line would run from southern Idaho to Las Vegas, Nevada; some 390 miles. It would also have major impacts on sage grouse habitat, as well as the ecosystems and precious aesthetic beauty of the valleys it would run through. To add insult to injury, even though there is already a major highway along this exact route, the power line would make its own corridor, zigzagging through countless roadless areas in attempt to minimize its ‘visual impacts’ on residential and high traffic areas. Since the majority of eastern Nevada is virtually uninhabited, the only ‘high traffic’ areas are the highways, and are therefore avoided by the SWIP corridor. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a highway spider-webbed by power lines than a handful of wildernesses thinly strangled by them.
Each one of these components - the wind power, the coal power, and the SWIP line - facilitates the other; and as of now, the local public is relatively uninformed and unconcerned. I am concerned, and anyone who truly knows much about the area and its value is concerned as well.
In my mind, I can see skeptics saying “It’s green energy, why on earth would those concerned about the environment oppose it?” For many people, renewable energy symbolizes our generation’s movement to better the environment; and in many ways it does. However, to assume that all green energy is ‘eco-friendly’ is false. In fact, much of it isn’t. Hydroelectricity projects destroy river ecosystems while solar panels are extremely resource intensive. Green energy is in fact merely a moderate (and respectable) improvement over fossil fuels. None of them are perfect and none of them are simple.
It seems very critical of me to protest the location and finer points of this opportunity for new renewable energy, and I feel a sense of hypocrisy within me for doing so. Nonetheless, it seems illogical to let this happen. Of course, until the 450 shiny blades are chopping hawks and kestrels in half where the sage grouse and mule deer once lived, the people won’t see what they gave up for some green juice.
Tonight I will tape my response to the eco-friendly board once again, because if there is only one thing that I have learned about being a conservationist, it is to never give up. This one will be a little nicer, but its message will not change. I will suggest that our society open its eyes and accept what really is. Green energy is the lesser of two evils, but no one can argue with using less power. Plus, everyone can participate.
So, what are you waiting for? Stop staring into this energy-consuming box of glowing glass and plastic and go for a walk, a run, or dig into a good book. May I suggest John McPhee’s Basin and Range?