A Whale of an Unintended Consequence

by Greg Walcher on July 7, 2016

Wind energy continues to be controversial, which seems surprising. Most people rightly think of the wind as not only renewable, but free. However, the technology needed to turn that free and renewable resource into usable electricity is not free, and we continually learn more about its unintended impacts.

For 30 years energy companies, utilities, government researchers, and academics have been studying the harm wind turbines can do to birds, and working hard to develop different machines that will not kill so many. The first megawatt wind turbines (on California’s Altamont Pass) were fast-spinning propellers that many environmentalists nicknamed “Raptor-matics,” and “Condor Cuisinarts.” More modern turbines are much larger and turn much slower, generating power without looking like airplane props. Yet despite design improvements, wind generators still kill thousands of birds every year, including eagles and endangered migratory birds.

Renewable energy advocates for some time thought solar energy might be a preferable alternative to wind, since it does not require moving parts. Then it turned out that the giant solar towers built in the Mohave Desert, surrounded by an array of mirrors, actually kill birds, too. Several months ago in this space I wrote about how the light from those installations attract millions of bugs that attract birds, which can literally be fried in mid-air – in much the same way that young boys fry ants with a magnifying glass. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is actively investigating the problem, so such solar installations may not become the preferred alternative to wind after all.

The deaths of thousands of birds was one reason energy companies began developing off-shore wind farms, often miles away from land. But it turns out that offshore wind farms may also cause collateral damage, in a big way. Conservation groups are now discovering that these giant wind machines may have a devastating effect on marine mammals, especially whales.

These are not your grandfather’s windmills, but huge 8-megawatt turbines that rise 650 feet above the water, with rotating blades more than 500 feet in diameter. Such gigantic rotors create pulsating sounds well known to anyone who lives near them on land. They can attract bats as far as nine miles offshore, and the noise travels through the water, as well as the air.

beached whales in EuropeNear the world’s largest concentration of offshore wind farms (in the North Sea and English Channel), researchers have documented dozens of beached whales – and are reaching alarming conclusions about the relationship between whale deaths and wind farms. They cite ample evidence that noise from the machines interferes with whale communication and navigation, sometimes with deadly results. In one month, 29 otherwise healthy sperm whales (an endangered species) were stranded and died on English, German and Dutch beaches.

We know that navy sonar and explosives can have a terrific impact on whales, as well as dolphins and seals, but these whale deaths occurred while such naval activity was suspended for the winter. The U.S. Navy recognizes that its sonar systems pose a danger to marine mammals. A landmark Navy study more than a decade ago documented the connection between whale deaths and common ship-based sonar. The study was done while the Navy planned its powerful new sonar systems needed to detect quieter submarines at longer distances. This poses a difficult trade-off. With potential enemies like North Korea using more sophisticated new submarines, our national security may depend on a technology that is bad for wildlife – a Hobson’s choice at best.

Navy sonar is more powerful than the noise of wind machines. But naval sonar operations are sporadic and can be scheduled. Wind farms are year-round. Also, their initial construction requires deafening (for whales) seismic surveys using violent bursts of noise from large air guns, and pile drivers during the construction – all of which conservationists now fear can cause permanent damage to the whales’ inner ears, their built-in sonar. In 2012, 19 pilot whales and a large endangered sei whale beached on the coast of Scotland while ships were using air guns to survey for a wind farm.

Nature is cruel. Volcanic eruptions, meteorites, earthquakes, and other natural noise has always killed whales in the same way. But the Natural Resource Defense Council says low frequency sonar can be even more damaging. “Manmade noises can drown out the sounds that whales and other marine mammals rely on for life’s most basic functions—from navigating to mating.” It seems that this is true not only of Navy sonar systems, but also wind generators – a whale of an unintended consequence.

(This column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel June 3, 2016)

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