Wind power and its cost in “things wild, natural and free”

In his foreword to “A Sand County Almanac”, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote:

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question of whether a higher “standard of living” is worth its cost in things wild, natural and free.”

Those words were written over fifty years ago, well before the wind itself no longer was taken for granted, and became viewed as an energy source for producing electricity through the spinning of turbine blades by wind power. But, the question remains whether the energy produced by the spinning of those turbines is worth the cost in the blood of golden eagles, other raptors, and other birds and mammals.

Certainly, the history of wind energy in America reveals clear concern about other costs of its production. The wind energy industry “blossomed” in America decades ago when oil prices spiked upwards and actions by the American government made subsidation of the financial costs of wind energy production acceptable to investors and producers. Later, when oil prices were no longer as big a concern, some of those subsidies lapsed and some wind energy producers went financially bankrupt. The financial cost of producing electricity by wind power had exceeded the financial tolerances of moneyed interests.

But, all along, there was another cost in producing wind energy. There was a cost in things “wild, natural and free” as Aldo Leopold described them. Biological consultants in California, including Sue Orloff and Anne Flannery, Judd Howell and Joe DiDonato, and others were hired to assess that cost, not in financial terms, but in biological terms. And the cost seemed high. Orloff and Flannery estimated scores of golden eagles killed each and every year, plus around two hundred red-tailed hawks and other raptors and non-raptorial birds killed each and every year in one wind producing area in California.

Can we translate the biological cost of these magnificent birds into financial costs? For instance, could we breed eagles and hawks in captivity and replace them into the environment, and force the energy producers to pay that expense, and call it even? Perhaps, but we know that releasing captive-bred raptors into the environment does not necessarily equate with parent-reared birds fledging and going on to breed in the wild. And no one has suggested that industry bear such a financial expense.

Yet, we know that this biological cost is significant. We know that the mortalities are extra-legal, in fact, illegal. And some of us believe that, while no population-level effect has been detected to date by these mortalities, that the possibility exists that a population effect may, indeed, take place after a period of loss of buffering by floaters and subadults in the population of golden eagles in the Altamont Pass, and by endangered or imperiled species at that location or other locations where wind energy is employed worldwide.

So, should we determine reflexively that the cost of wind energy is too high in its biological cost, and switch back to coal or oil or gas as energy sources — or maybe nuclear power? I would suggest that we first apply the same basic question to ALL sources of electrical energy production plus energy distribution regimes. What are the costs of coal and gas-produced electricity in terms of things wild, natural and free? What are the biological costs of energy distribution?

When we begin to think about these issues, we realize that the basic problem is that these costs are rarely translated into practical ways of protecting biological organisms from the costs imposed by human societies on them. We see some effort, for instance, to reduce mortalities of raptors by collisions with power lines, or by electrocution. But those efforts are probably a pittance in comparison with the need as expressed by the total biological expense of raptor or bird lives lost by these means. We hardly even monitor the total biological expenses in this regard!

Since society has not calculated the overall cost of loss of things wild, natural and free in the production and distribution of energy, then it is impossible to calculate whether that expense is justified. Instead, we tend to blindly carry on with the pursuit of that all-important higher standard of living, and never ask ourselves if it is all really worth it.

It may very well be that if we considered these costs, society would determine that we would prefer to bear the financial expenses of avoiding the biological costs. In other words, we may determine that we should make power lines safe everywhere so that birds are not electrocuted or injured by collisions. We may determine that we will pay a bit more for wind power in exchange for turbine designs that protect birds from those spinning blades — perhaps by using composite plastic blade-guards similar to those used in household ventilation fans.

The question of whether fewer, but larger turbines will reduce raptor mortalities seems to be a misguided one, in my view. I believe that the cost of raptor lives is related directly to the total energy production, not to the numbers or types of turbines. I believe that we should analyze this in terms of mortalities per kilowatt hour, and not mortalities by turbine type. I suspect that when all is said and done, the total raptor mortalities in a given geographic area will be more related to total energy production, regardless of turbine design, than on any other single factor. The goal should be to make turbines safe for raptors and other birds — not to reduce mortalities to more “acceptable” levels by changing turbine blade size or numbers of turbines. If the turbines are safe, the birds will not be killed, and then we can be proud of our efforts to produce energy at a lower biological cost, even if the financial cost is higher.

The same is true with many land uses and industrial operations in our advanced industrial society. We have externalized costs of grazing and agriculture so that the citizen who pays per pound for beef is also paying the government to pay for the endangerment of species caused by that beef production. We pay industries to refine crude oil, but their profits do not reflect the societal cost of asthma and soil contamination and the cost of sending armies around the world to ensure an adequate supply of crude oil for the economy.

We must learn to count all the costs — not just the obvious ones. And the biological costs of our industrial society are very high. Just ask the golden eagles of the Altamont Pass. They can tell you.

The writer is a member of several falconry and ornithological clubs and organizations. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from California, USA.