Washington Governor Jay Inslee says tackling climate change is our state’s “hour to shine,” but we should be under no illusions about new forms of so-called “clean energy,” especially from wind turbines.
But they look so clean! There they are, dotting the ridge lines across the landscape, turning their blades in the fresh breeze, harkening back to old-fashioned Dutch windmills or a brightly colored pinwheel toy from our childhood. What’s not to like? Much.
I have just finished writing a set of public comments critical of the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project—a 38 wind-turbine facility proposed to be built in Lewis County (south of Olympia, east of Centralia). Why do I get to criticize this project? Because the Lewis County Community Development Department determined the project will have a significant adverse impact on the environment. How ironic! Under state laws, this determination triggers an environmental review, In this case, the “environment” encompasses the habitat of several species of wildlife listed by the state or federal government as threatened, endangered, or in need of special protection and so these species are expected to be adversely impacted by the project. “Adverse impacts” generally means the species are at risk of being directly or indirectly killed or harmed by the project.
And by “project” we are talking about not only the 38 wind turbines (each 500 feet tall) but also the 120 towers and 17 miles of transmission lines that carry the energy produced by the turbines to Puget Sound Energy’s substation where it is fed into the grid. The towers will look something like this:
Why am I concerned? Because this project, located on Weyerhaeuser property, is sited in the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds (68 species document at the site), is a place where both Bald and Golden Eagles are common, and is on the commuting route of the endangered Marbled Murrelet—the seabird that flies through the project area en route between the Pacific Ocean and/or Puget Sound to the west and north and its nesting habitat on federal forestland at the eastern edge of the project. The proponents of the project, RES-Americas, estimates that 2.496 Marbled Murrelets will be “taken” (killed) each year as well as 4.86 Bald Eagles and 1.65 Golden Eagles during turbine operations. They are not willing to take responsibility for adverse impacts to these birds or any other wildlife during the year-long construction phase of the project when birds could be at risk for colliding with turbines, towers, and get tie-lines. This means that over the 30-year lifespan of this “clean” energy project, we are likely to lose 75 Marbled Murrelets, 66 Bald Eagles, and 23 Golden Eagles, not to mention untold numbers of migratory birds as well as bats that occur in the project area.
To its credit, RES-Americas has worked diligently to figure out ways to minimize the toll on these special-status birds and they have grappled nobly with the strange and somewhat unpredictable breeding behavior of the Marbled Murrelet, whose remarkable life history hovers on the edge of possibility. Since 2001, Washington state has lost 44% of our murrelet population. The loss of its nesting habitat—our coastal old-growth and mature forests—as well as the depletion of the fisheries that supply its food, oil pollution, and entrapment in fishing nets, and a host of habitat-degrading problems have all caused this decline. And then there’s climate change and its impacts on both the marine and forest ecosystems to which murrelets belong.
To some the murrelet is doomed and therefore why not throw 38 spinning turbines and 120 transmission towers in its way? Why not log this parcel of land, or this one, or this one? There are so many forces at work against the murrelet’s survival that no one person, agency, or corporation could possibly be accused of dealing the fatal blow. If no one can prove that the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project caused of the deaths of the murrelets nesting nearby, or contributed to the loss of the murrelet population barely hanging on in Southwest Washington, or proverbially hammered the nail in the coffin of the 4,913 murrelets left inWashington —then who is? The Washington Department of Natural Resources? The U.S. Forest Service? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? Private timber companies? The salmon gill-net fisheries? There will be such a feast of finger pointing that guilt for this crime won’t stick to anyone. But we’ll all feel it.
We’ll tell ourselves that we address climate change NOW! We must reduce human impacts on the environment NOW! We must wean ourselves from fossil fuels NOW! We need to divest our money and our souls from the dirty oil and the dirty coal that visibly pollutes our water, air, and soil. We need to tax the polluters, educate the wasteful, and “green” our economy! We need to install big, beautiful, white wind turbines across our landscape. Everyone for miles around needs to see us conspicuously generating clean energy!
Few of us will see the hundreds of bird carcasses on the ground beneath these symbols of clean energy. That job will be left to an unlucky few hired to conduct carcass searches beneath the turbines. Has any one considered that the birds using the Pacific Flyway to move northward into a cooler climate may not be able to navigate through this clean-energy obstacle course? How many birds will fatally collide with the very turbines installed in part to reduce the fatal impacts of climate change on these birds?
When operational, the proposed Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project will produce 137 megawatts of electricity. My annual electrical bill from Puget Sound Energy (PSE) is TK kilowatts. So this project could potentially power TK homes. Given the population growth in our region, this energy will not be used to replace but to supplement our current energy needs. The Evergreen State may become forested with forests of wind turbines—sterile forests where no trees grow and no birds sing.
So, Governor Inslee, how about some truly conservative policies—that is, ones based on actually conserving energy? Remember former President Jimmy Carter asking the American people to waste less energy? This was in 1979—forty years ago! (Interesting Carter didn’t ask us to use less, just to waste less!)
Frumpy cardigan aside, what’s wrong with an extra layer of fleece? How about turning your thermostat down to 65F in the day and 55F at night (you’ll sleep better, trust me!). How about unplugging a few energy-sucking appliances, electronics, and gizmos? Would you not make some minor life-style changes to save a Marbled Murrelet? A Bald or Golden Eagle? What about a Peregrine Falcon, Pileated Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Vaux’s Swift, special-status bats, and any of the 68 migratory bird species flying in harm’s way?
We expect bird, bats, and other wildlife to change their habits, to fly around or over thousands of acres of enormous turbines and towers and electrical lines, to forage and nest elsewhere, and to adapt quickly and successfully to whatever impediments we decided to place in their environment. As we modify and degrade wildlife habitat in the name of “clean energy” and “progress,” we are forcing our wildlife to spend get by with less. Because we refuse to do so ourselves. This is the dirty little secret clean energy. We can do better.
Despite my criticism, the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project has the potential to be a model project for Washington state and for any place where wildlife is abundant, imperiled, at risk. So everywhere. In my view, the project needs to be downsized. Operations of turbines needs to be curtailed during murrelet breeding season. And the investors need to rethink their expected (large) profits.
There are plenty of very smart and motivated people developing new wind-energy technologies that don’t cause more harm than good. The American Wind and Wildlife Association is leading the way on this front. Check out this uplifting video that gives a glimmer of hope as we navigate our way through our energy crisis. Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project can help us find the win-win in wind energy.