“The right idea in the wrong place,” is what Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) executive director Brent Fenty called a wind energy project that has now been canceled as a result of a lawsuit his organization filed against its developers.
What transpired between ONDA, Columbia Energy Partners (the company behind the wind project), Harney County and the federal courts illustrates one of the biggest issues our society faces as we transition toward a clean energy-based economy: Where can we put wind farms where people won’t get mad?
In the case recently in Oregon, the courts ruled that the survey conducted on the lands by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was insufficient and even contradictory. The wind project was to be located in Oregon’s high desert, which is habitat for the sage grouse, a bird that has seen population declines to “near threatened” levels due to habitat destruction.
The BLM, in a decision that bungled the whole project, opted not to survey the land to see if the sage grouse inhabited the area of the proposed wind farm during the winter. Instead, the BLM opted to conclude based on the data they had for nearby similar sites, that no sagebrush grouse are present in the area during the winter. Things got even murkier, however, when it was then discovered that the nearby sites they referenced actually did have sagebrush grouse living there. In other words, the BLM really dropped the ball by failing to do a thorough examination.
ONDA filed a lawsuit claiming that the BLM survey was not accurate, to which the courts agreed, and the conclusion was no more wind project.
Hooray for wind energy! Just don’t put it near me
While this particular case comes down to poor surveying by the BLM, it is another example of the challenges faced by renewable energy projects.
The following are all reasons why wind projects face frequent opposition by nearby communities:
Wind turbine syndrome
Many communities have pointed toward a condition called “wind turbine syndrome” as a concern regarding how wind farms can impact the health of nearby communities. The belief is that the low-level noise created by the wind farms adversely impacts human health. The symptoms this condition is said to cause are usually (but not limited to) headaches, panic attacks and migraines.
A University of Sydney study concluded, however, that although there was a pattern of increased medical complaints near some wind farms of these symptoms, it was only in the areas where there was heavy opposition by anti-wind groups. In areas near wind farms with no opposition, there was no rise in medical complaints of those symptoms. The conclusion of the study was that the suggestion by the anti-wind lobby that people were at risk of these symptoms is what was driving people to believe they were suffering from the symptoms.
“Where you set up an expectation in people that something in their environment is noxious, that can translate into an expression of symptoms,” said Simon Chapman, the university’s professor of public health.
Wind turbine syndrome is considered a psychosomatic condition and thus has become the first medical malady to ever invent itself, which is quite remarkable.
Wind farms, specifically offshore ones, are often opposed by local communities for being an eyesore. Residents hate looking at wind farms so much that it makes their eyes feel sore. Donald Trump appealed to the Scottish government to block a planned wind farm near one of the local golf courses and resorts he owns for just that reason, arguing allowing the project to go ahead would hurt Scottish tourism.
Often, critics of wind energy will cite the number of birds that die as a result of flying into the turbines as a reason to reject a wind energy project. Many countries, states, provinces, etc., require that surveys be taken near a proposed project to ensure that the wind farms do not intersect any migratory bird patterns, but nothing will stop birds from occasionally flying into them.
The problem with using this as an argument against a wind project is that birds fly into everything. In the US, it is estimated that 599 million birds die as a result of collisions with buildings per year. Cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds a year in the US, and many of those cats even assume their human providers will be thankful for receiving these dead birds as “gifts.” Wind turbines kill 234,000 a year in comparison, but new technologies are being developed to reduce this number.
Health impacts of living near coal and nuclear plants
It’s perhaps not appropriate to mention some of the pitfalls of wind energy projects without comparing them to the alternatives, namely nuclear and coal. Coal-burning plants emit almost half of the airborne toxic particles that we even know about, 84 of the 187 toxic airborne particles listed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, to be exact. Exposure to these toxins has been shown to increase respiratory illnesses, as well as damage the kidneys and nervous system.
Living near a nuclear plant is equally not fun. With nuclear power, while there are no greenhouse gas emissions, leakage of radioactive waste is potentially damaging to local ecosystems and nearby communities. Nearby communities have often reported increased cancer rates following the development of nuclear projects. In the UK, a study concluded that breast cancer risk increased by five times for women living near nuclear plants, and in San Luis Obispo another study concluded that infant mortality and cancer rates were both impacted following the building of a nearby nuclear plant.
As with most problems our society faces, our best hope for a solution is new technologies. To that end, companies and governments are developing new ways to reduce the impacts on wildlife from wind energy projects, such as illuminating the blades at night and using sensors to monitor when birds might be near. In the Galapagos, new advancements are allowing wind projects to be developed without causing harm to sensitive bird populations.
Reducing or eliminating the impacts on wildlife is a significant challenge for renewable energy developers, but it is an area that will see great development in the coming years.