Recently, in the usually environmentally benign country of Sweden, concerns were raised that European Union (EU) directives designed to protect wild birds were twice knowingly violated. Put simply, EU member states are not supposed to put energy-generating wind turbines where they pose a specific, predictable risk to species protected under the directive, specifically white-tailed eagles, red kites, and rough-legged buzzards (known as rough-legged hawks in the US). Swedish law prohibits "deliberate" capture and killing of wild birds, although what constitutes "deliberate" has become a matter of debate. Sweden erected wind turbines where those species occur.
The use of wind turbines has staunch advocates and equally staunch critics, and both have, at times fervently, sought my endorsement. But, I cannot pick sides. It is a complex issue with valid points made by each side.
Years ago, I visited the notorious Altamont Pass wind turbines in California. A huge array of wind turbines were mounted on a ridge in the direct path of migrating birds of prey, who died there in the thousands: about 1,300 hawks and eagles, plus another 1,000 or more birds of other species per year, when birds and turbine blades collided. Slowly, the 4,930 original turbines are being replaced with more modern devices said to be less dangerous to the birds, but still directly in the flight path of migrating raptors who seek the same winds that drive the turbines. In Sweden, it has been roughly calculated that the turbines would kill about one white-tailed eagle every five years, one red kite (a large, hawk-like bird) every seven years, and one rough-legged buzzard every eight years.
Meanwhile, where I live, in southern Ontario, towering wind turbines are fairly commonplace - especially in southwestern Ontario, which is flat farmland largely denuded of its native forests. And, there is a heated battle over their use.
Wind turbine technology is relatively new, and we are close to the bottom of a learning curve about their risks and benefits. Not only can birds fly into them, they are dangerous to bats. No one knows the exact reason for sure, but it seems that, in part, the air currents around the turbines seem, to the bats, to indicate the presence of trees, and the small animals are lured close. There is also evidence that the swirling blades create an abrupt air pressure differential so severe that it ruptures the lungs of bats, killing them instantly. It's been estimated that more than half a million bats are killed by wind turbines in a year in the US alone, and this is on top of "white-nose syndrome," a mysterious infection that results in the deaths of entire colonies of bats. This one-two punch has driven once-common species onto the endangered species list in a short space of time. Already-endangered species are at further risk.
Bats are hugely important to our own survival, both as consumers of vast numbers of flying insects and, in warm climates, as pollinators of many of the crops we consume. There are similar concerns about some large insects, such as migratory monarch butterflies and dragonflies, being killed by wind turbines.
And now, in southern Ontario, we hear increasing concerns about human health issues, with farm families complaining that both they and their livestock sicken from some mysterious effect of nearby turbines. However, so far, there is no trace of evidence that there are any emissions, or any way that the sound the turbines emit can cause such illness. Battle lines are drawn and resentments run high.
Meanwhile, the sad truth is that pretty well any method of generating energy can cause animals to die, as the recent oil spill on the shoreline of Vancouver so graphically illustrates. And, it is unreasonable to think, as some people seem to want to do, that we can pump as much greenhouse gas as we want into the environment without consequences. Climate change is real, is happening now, and is largely driven by human action, or inaction. And, it can have a horrific effect on large numbers of birds and other wildlife - and, ultimately, on us.
We have to keep trying to find renewable sources of energy that work, in conjunction with finding ways to reduce our demands and redefine our priorities. And, we have to adapt systems to minimize their negative effects on the environment. Billions of fish and other species are sucked into nuclear generators which produce incredibly toxic waste that lasts far longer than any human civilization ever had. Vast arrays of solar panels have led to deaths of huge numbers of birds who cannot survive the heat above them. Hydro-electric dams have blocked spawning routes of native fish or led to siltation and destroyed river habitat.
But, we can't give up. Geothermal, tidal, and ocean currents generate energy endlessly. Energy conservation works, technology can lead to advances in energy reduction, and governments can be held accountable. Time is running short; the water rises and we must act quickly, but wisely.