February 06, 2007
Wind farms

This article on the dynamics behind wind farms was interesting but a little unsatisfying. I got some good information out of it, but I think it needed some more to really finish the job.

Though embraced by state political leaders as a clean, renewable electricity source and welcomed by many rural landowners as newfound income, wind farms are gathering fresh opposition from Texas ranchers who say they are an ugly, noisy blight on the wide-open landscape.

Opponents say the turbines, which extend up 400 feet to the tips of their blades, not only threaten birds and wildlife but devalue property in areas such as the distant outskirts of Dallas-Fort Worth, where ranchland is increasingly being used for recreation and second homes.

"We're in a 100-yard dash trying to fight these things and, they're already 50 yards ahead," said [ranch manager Dan] Stephenson.

Because Texas does not regulate the siting of wind projects, power companies need only assemble a group of agreeable landowners to set up operations. Royalties paid to ranchers in the Abilene area average about $12,000 per turbine per year, according to testimony in a lawsuit there.

Without governmental oversight, wind farm opponents say, their only recourse has been to head for the courthouse.


Gamesa and larger producers in Texas like FPL Energy, which operates 11 wind farms in the state, have been encouraged to build by the Legislature, which in 1999 mandated renewable energy goals. In 2005, lawmakers called for an output of 5,880 megawatts by 2009 -- about 3 percent of total demand -- from sources such as wind, solar, landfill gas and flowing water.

Last year, wind turbines in Texas accounted for nearly a third of all those installed in the U.S., according to a report released last month by American Wind Energy Association. And the state now hosts the world's largest operating wind farm, the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center in Nolan and Taylor counties.

"When they put 1,000 of those next to your property, you're not living out in the country anymore," said Dale Rankin, referring to the slim white towers arrayed on the bluffs around his property in Tuscola, about 20 miles south of Abilene.


Jack Hunt, president of the legendary King Ranch in South Texas, scoffs at comparisons between wind turbines and power lines or pump jacks. "They're not 400 feet tall and moving," he said.

The King Ranch, owned by descendants of Capt. Richard King, has taken issue with a proposal to locate 267 turbines on a neighboring ranch near the coast in Kenedy County. County commissioners last spring denied the project a tax abatement, but it could go forward without one.

"The Kenedy and King ranches go back more than 150 years, and we're at each other's throats over this deal," Hunt said, referring to property owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust.

He said the proposed wind farm is likely to have a major impact on the so-called "River of Birds," the flyway from Canada to Mexico that funnels scores of migrating bird species through the area. "You're erecting a 10-mile wall," he said, echoing criticism from environmentalists and birders. "Nobody's looking at how the birds will react to it."

Two offshore wind farms that state officials are proposing to build in the Gulf will receive considerable federal scrutiny for their effect on the birds, marine life and other ecological impacts.

"Onshore, there is no oversight," Hunt said. "Once they start killing birds, and you happen to find out about it, then you can bring in the feds."

Hunt and other critics say the wind power hardly merits the major tax subsidies it receives. Because wind is so variable, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which controls most of the state's power grid, calculates it can rely on only 2.6 percent of wind power capacity being available during peak summer demand periods, council reports show.

"They've been on the cusp of becoming efficient and useful for a quarter-century now, and they never quite get there," Hunt said. "We're destroying so much scenery for so little power."

I wish I knew more about this so I wouldn't have to research it after reading this article. Two-point-six percent for peak summer months? That isn't much. And what about the birds? Is there a definitive study of this? I've heard that concern for years, but don't know of any real research.

Given a choice, I'd rather have wind farms going up than coal plants (and note the dollar amount listed there; you want to woo Rick Perry, there's your minimum opening bid), but if wind is slated to be nothing more than a bit player then I'll be much more sympathetic to the ranchers' complaints. Guess I need to do some more reading.

On a related note, the Observer blog has flagged SB444 by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, which would make some big changes in the utilities code, as a bill to watch. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 06, 2007 to Technology, science, and math | TrackBack


Wikipedia has some answers on the number of collisions, though one link for a source is broken and another is a book. It appears that the number of birds killed by these turbines is miniscule compared to other human-caused deaths, so insignificant in fact, that the bird deaths would probably be negligible even if we got 100% of our energy needs from wind power.

Of course, if there are threatened or endangered species in the area, a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment would need to be done, but it appears most types of birds avoid traveling through wind turbine areas (though I haven't closely read the studies) and simply travel around.

Posted by: Erik on February 6, 2007 9:11 AM

The issue of bird deaths from wind farms has been overblown, from what I can tell, largely due to the experience at a single, old, wind farm in northern California (Altamont Pass).

While there is not a huge amount of data, what data there is suggests that modern turbines, properly sited, are not a significant impact compared to all the other human impacts. "Properly sited," of course, is the key.

The head of the Audubon Society, John Flicker, recently wrote: "If we don't find ways to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions, far more birds - and people - will be threatened by global warming than by wind turbines."

Posted by: P.M.Bryant on February 6, 2007 11:49 AM