Thursday, March 16, 2006

Windmills In Our Backyards

Iowa windmill picture, 1970

This is the windmill that was in my backyard when I was growing up. Everybody had one. I always thought they were pretty, and I liked the many sounds they made as the wind changed direction and speed.

Lately, there has been some interest in locating windfarms in Greenbrier County, WV and Highland County, VA (both of them just over the border from Pocahontas). They would generate electricity and green points for a power company. A lot of people are opposed, claiming the windmills would degrade local land values, ruin the scenic vistas, and generally be bad. I've been trying to find out more about windfarms, so that I can come up with a better opinion than "I like windmills because they are pretty." Unfortunately, almost everything I've found on the Internet has been advocacy for the pro or the con position. Here are the best balanced informative sites I've found so far.

From what I've read so far, if care is taken in placing the windmills, they don't grind up migrating birds, cast flickering shadows over people's homes, or create loud noise. They do seem to kill a lot of bats, and no one knows why. You have to cut down trees on the windmill site, but they look a lot better than a strip mine, and you have the option of removing the windmills. There are several mountain tops around here that were strip mined in the seventies. Snowshoe Mountain, where the ski resort was built, is an example; so is Briery Knob. Trees will not grow on these sites again for hundreds of years. They might look nicer with windmills. I'm afraid I haven't developed that informed opinion yet.


Dave said...

Oh boy, you just pushed one of my buttons! Look out...

First of all, "wind farm" is a PR term. They're wind plants.

I don't mind the look of them, and they are surely better than strip mines. In fact, former strip mines are probably the best place to put them. There are probably many good sites west of the Alegheny ridges, on land that's already cleared.

But here in the folded Appalachians of Pennsylvania, there's a huge push to put wind plants on virtually every wooded ridgetop. This is a problem because our ridges are already beginning to resemble habitat islands, with most of the valleys cleared long ago. The average wind installation not only clears the entire top of the ridge, but creates further fragmentation in the form of new, very straight, permanent access roads. And because of the danger of ice throw from the blades, they would render large portions of our public forests off-limits to hunters during deer season (not to mention other users).

As I'm sure you know, most of the wooded, linear ridges are major migration routes for raptors and other birds, and the presence of wooded habitat is essential to their ability to rest and refuel on their intercontinental journeys. Interior forested habitat is critical to the long-term survival of such species as the scarlet tanager. Seventeen percent of all scarlet tanagers that exist today nest within Pennsylvania, and they are declining here at a rate of 1% a year. Tanager nesting success is directly tied to the preservation of large (over 1000 acres), unbroken blocks of older hardwood forests. Another acute concern is the preservation of unroaded habitat for reptiles and amphibians, such as timber rattlesnakes and wood turtles, whose populations have been shown to suffer slow, steady declines in the vicinity of roads and trails.

The critically imperiled populations of Allegheny woodrats are all located on wooded ridgetops, and if those areas are penetrated by too many roads and permanent openings, the likelihood of the woodrats continuing to escape extirpation due to contact with the raccoon roundworm approaches zero. Once-thriving populations of the species are now completely eliminated from New York and New Jersey.

Finally, direct mortality of turbines on forest bat species, as you mention, remains unexplained, and until its causes are understood and mitigated, we should approach the placement of wind plants in forested areas with extreme caution. Given the extent of their impact on the base of the food chain - insects - bats are very likely keystone species in forested ecosystems.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Great! I was trolling for information, and I snagged some! If you could suggest some references, or starting points for accumulating references, I'd be very grateful.

The public debate here has been 98% content free on both sides. No one is saying exactly where the windmills would go, or how many would be built. The opponents (such as Greenbrier Resort home owners) are only saying that you could see the windmills from a long way off, and it would lower their property values. Now, if you say it will hinder deer hunting, well, that's the end of the discussion in Pocahontas County. We can't have it.

I'm trying to gather relevant information about the biological impact, and you've given me some some good topics to research. I think people here would like to be better informed.

All of Pocahontas County has been cut over, and there was a huge fire in 1929 that burned all the brush and remaining trees. Logging goes on all the time, but so far, it seems to be better managed than what you show us in your neck of the woods. The Bush administration is trying to change that, and so it Intrawest, the owner of Snowshoe Resort...welcome to Appalachia, home of raw material to enrich the carpetbaggers.

One gripe at a time. Factual information about environmental impact. That's my project. Thanks for your help.