The Bat Massacre of West Virginia

Dutch Windmills: Bat Killers? You Decide

Environmentalism and green energy technology--a collision best described as interesting:

Workers atop mountain ridges are putting together 389-foot windmills with massive blades that will turn Appalachian breezes into energy. Retiree David Cowan is fighting to stop them.

Because of the bats.

Cowan, 72, a longtime caving fanatic who grew to love bats as he slithered through tunnels from Maine to Maui, is asking a federal judge in Maryland to halt construction of the Beech Ridge wind farm. The lawsuit pits Chicago-based Invenergy, a company that produces "green" energy, against environmentalists who say the cost to nature is too great.

The rare green vs. green case went to trial Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

It is the first court challenge to wind power under the Endangered Species Act, lawyers on both sides say. With President Obama's goal of doubling renewable energy production by 2012, wind and solar farms are expanding rapidly. That has sparked battles to reach a balance between the benefits of clean energy and the impact on birds, bats and even the water supply.

At the heart of the Beech Ridge case is the Indiana bat, a brownish-gray creature that weighs about as much as three pennies and, wings outstretched, measures about eight inches. A 2005 estimate concluded that there were 457,000 of them, half the number in 1967, when they were first listed as endangered.

"Any kind of energy development is going to have environmental impacts that are going to concern somebody," said John D. Echeverria, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in environmental law and isn't involved in the suit. "This has been an issue for the environmental community. They are enthusiastic; at the same time, they realize there are these adverse impacts."

We should find a way to switch to green technology without endangering a species--that's why Poindexter runs around with his pith helmet and his clipboard, trying to record the sounds of bats making sweet love in the air while they fly through the churning rotors of a working windmill. You cannot escape the conclusion that, if we don't switch to green technology, virtually all species are threatened with something worse than turbine blades, however. This is where you put aside your bias and try to reach a compromise.

The Endandered Species Act brings out a lot of controversy, however, and environmentalist vs environmentalist is nothing new. The first place to start is to try to find good statistics and see what the problem is:

To most experts, though, there's a problem with the bird-mortality argument: The vast majority of research shows that wind turbines kill relatively few birds, at least compared with other man-made structures. The statistics are shocking if you consider just how many people are crying out against wind power for the birds' sake:

Man-made structure/technology

Associated bird deaths per year (U.S.)

Feral and domestic cats

Hundreds of millions [source: AWEA]

Power lines

130 million -- 174 million [source: AWEA]

Windows (residential and commercial)

100 million -- 1 billion [source: TreeHugger]


70 million [source: AWEA]


60 million -- 80 million [source: AWEA]

Lighted communication towers

40 million -- 50 million [source: AWEA]

Wind turbines

10,000 -- 40,000 [source: ABC]


­Collisions with wind turbines account for about one-tenth of a percent of all "unnatural" bird deaths in the United States each year. And of all bird deaths, 30 percent are due to natural causes, like baby birds falling from nests [source: AWEA]. So why the widespread misconception that labels wind turbines "bird-o-matics"? I­t all starts with California, raptors and the thousands of old turbines that make up the Altamont Pass wind farm.

Fair enough, I guess. Methodology being what it is, I wouldn't just accept these numbers because I really question the accuracy--as in, how do you really know? There are multiple sources listed above--do they all use the same methodology? Does the AWEA reallycount how many baby birds fall out of nests? Why do I suspect that ABC's citation of 10,000-40,000 deaths from wind turbines is based on a different methodology than that of the other two organizations? That data seems to come from an assessment done several years ago to figure out what impact the aforementioned Altamont Pass site was having on birds of prey:

After years of study but little progress reducing bird kills, environmentalists have sued to force turbine owners to take tough corrective measures. The companies, at risk of federal prosecution, say they see the need to protect birds. "Once we finally realized that this issue was really serious, that we had to solve it to move forward, we got religion," says George Hardie, president of G3 Energy.

The size of the annual body count — conservatively put at 4,700 birds — is unique to this sprawling, 50-square-mile site in the Diablo Mountains between San Francisco and the agricultural Central Valley because it spans an international migratory bird route regulated by the federal government. The low mountains are home to the world's highest density of nesting golden eagles.

Scientists don't know whether the kills reduce overall bird populations but worry that turbines, added to other factors, could tip a species into decline. "They didn't realize it at the time, but it was just a really bad place to build a wind farm," says Grainger Hunt, an ecologist with the Peregrine Fund who has studied eagles at Altamont.

Across the USA — from Cape Cod to the Southern California desert — new wind projects, touted as emission-free options to oil- and gas-fueled power plants, face resistance over wildlife, noise and vistas. The clashes come as wind-energy demand is growing, in part because 17 states have passed laws requiring that some of their future energy — 20% in California by 2010 — come from renewable sources.

Environmental groups, fans in principle of "green" power, are caught in the middle. "We've been really clear all along, we absolutely support wind energy as long as facilities are appropriately sited," says Jeff Miller, Bay Area wildlands coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity, which took 12 companies to court.

Let's say that they're in the ballpark then, and that the actual number rests between 7,000 and 70,000. Is that still enough to justify denying someone a permit to operate a wind farm? In order to establish a wind farm, you have to find a geographic location suitable to it. I would add that you had better have a handle on migratory routes as well--and these routes probably follow the wind as well.

There is a site where this data is housed, and it is called, appropriately, I don't think anyone who wants to put up a communications tower or a wind turbine should ignore efforts to determine whether or not that particular site is damaging an endangered species. It's all about balancing different needs and different threats, and if we can't figure out how to make that work, we're all going to die, boiled in our own juices and forced to leave this planet. I plan to be buried here--do I want my children to have to get on a spaceship and leave me here? As the kids say, hells no.

Happy trackbacks to the folks in West Virginia.