Our Voice: The balance between wind power and eagles

July 11, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Larry McMurtry’s novel “By Sorrow’s River” tells of explorers flying across the American West in a hot-air balloon in the late 18th century. A flock of cranes flies into the balloon, sending it plunging to earth.

“Damnable creatures,” one character says, “why wouldn’t they turn?”

“Doubt they expected to run into a balloon on their trip,” says another.

Mankind’s inventions have meant trouble for wildlife in many ways, from air fouled by factories to the ground polluted by pesticides. Wind and solar energy production also impact nature and we need to know more about these evolving technologies.

RELATED: Eagles killed by Palm Springs windmills raise concerns

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is encouraging windmill companies to apply for permits that require them to monitor bird deaths and allow a certain number of eagles to be killed each year. Only one company has received a permit. The Shiloh IV Wind Project in Solano County will be allowed five eagle deaths in the next five years.

A letter to the editor points out the irony that the federal government has supported wind energy with tax credits and now threatens legal action over the deaths of federally protected birds.

“There is no simple answer and never will be,” writes Allan MacLaren of Palm Desert. “If we are to have wind power, we will also have bird deaths.”

He’s right, this is a tough one. The Desert Sun supports wind power and we understand there will be impacts to the environment. We also support the effort to gather reliable information so we can make informed decisions.

The Fish and Wildlife Service revised its Eagle Conservation Plan in April 2013.

“Of all America’s wildlife, eagles hold perhaps the most revered place in our national history and culture,” says the executive report. “The United States has long imposed special protections for its bald and golden eagle populations. Now, as the nation seeks to increase its production of domestic energy, wind energy developers and wildlife agencies have recognized a need for specific guidance to help make wind energy facilities compatible with eagle conservation and the laws and regulations that protect eagles.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service says it has received reports of 15 golden eagles killed by windmills in the San Gorgonio Pass since 1999 — about one per year. But monitoring of bird deaths is spotty. Few windmill companies have applied for permits in a program introduced in 2009.

RELATED:U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Eagle Conservation Plan

Golden eagles are not endangered, but they are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940.

Last year, the government won a $1 million settlement from Duke Energy Renewables after the company acknowledged the deaths of eagles and other birds at wind farms in Wyoming. That case should encourage other companies to apply for permits. But they should do so as good corporate citizens.

Everybody knows that birds die flying into windmills, but we need reliable statistics. David Ward, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association, says only about 2 percent of documented golden eagle deaths involve the wind industry and only a handful of bald eagles have died in its history. Without adequate monitoring, it’s difficult to accept those numbers as final.

Environmental groups criticized a decision by Fish and Wildlife Service to allow permits as long as 30 years. That does seem too long, although the government can take action if the number of deaths exceed the permit. The industry says eagle deaths can be reduced by replacing old, faster-rotating turbines with taller, slower-rotating turbines. The new turbines are also more efficient and profitable. The industry also should develop detection systems through photography, audio sensors and thermal imaging.

The Desert Sun encourages the companies that own windmills in the San Gorgonio Pass — where eagles have long been a majestic presence — to seek the permits so we can determine the proper balance between expanding renewable energy and protecting our treasured species.

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