6:51PM GMT 13 Mar 2010
In all my scores of items over the years on why the obsession with wind turbines will be seen as one of the major follies of our age, there is one issue I haven’t touched on. The main practical objection to turbines, of course, is that they are useless, producing derisory amounts of electricity at colossal cost. (Yet the Government wants us to spend £100 billion on building thousands more of them which, even were it technically possible, would do virtually nothing to fill the fast-looming 40 per cent gap in our electricity supply.)
A feature of these supposedly environment-friendly machines that I haven’t mentioned, however, is their devastating effect on wildlife, notably on large birds of prey, such as eagles and red kites. Particularly disturbing is the extent to which the disaster has been downplayed by professional bodies, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Britain and the Audubon Society in the US, which should be at the forefront of exposing this outrage, but which have often been drawn into a conflict of interest by the large sums of money they derive from the wind industry itself.
There is plenty of evidence for the worldwide scale of this tragedy. The world’s largest and most carefully monitored wind farm, Altamont Pass in California, is estimated to have killed between 2,000 and 3,000 golden eagles alone in the past 20 years. Since turbines were erected on the isle of Smola, off Norway, home to an important population of white-tailed sea eagles, destruction is so great that last year only one chick survived. Thanks to wind farms in Tasmania, a unique sub-species of wedge-tailed eagles faces extinction. And here in Britain, plans to build eight wind farms on the Hebridean islands, among Scotland’s largest concentration of golden eagles, now pose a major threat to the species’ survival in the UK.
The real problem is that birds of prey and wind developers are both drawn, for similar reasons, to the same sites – hills and ridges where the wind provides lift for soaring birds and heavily subsidised profits for developers. Eagles may thus be drawn from hundreds of square miles to particular wind farms. And, as can be seen from the YouTube video of a vulture circling above a turbine in Crete (Google “Fatal accident with vulture on windmill”), the vortices created by blade tips revolving at up to 200mph can destabilise such large birds, plunging them into a fatal collision.
This ecological disaster has been abundantly documented and publicised, not least in Europe by Save The Eagles International, run by Mark Duchamp, a retired French businessman living in Alicante. Spain has one of the three highest concentrations of turbines in Europe and, according to the Spanish Ornithological Society (see Mr Duchamp’s Iberica 2000 website), they may be killing up to a million birds a year. But he focuses his campaign on what he sees as the disturbing failure to protect birds by the bodies whose job it is to do so, from the RSPB to the European Commission.
In the US, the local branch of the Audubon Society withdrew its opposition to a giant wind farm off Cape Cod after a substantial sum of money was promised for ornithologists to monitor its effects on bird life. In Britain, the RSPB claims to keep a critical eye on those effects, but nevertheless urges a major expansion of wind farms, on the grounds that “climate change is the most significant threat to biodiversity on the planet”. The RSPB receives £10 from the wind-farm builder Scottish & Southern Energy for every customer signing up for electricity under its “RSPB Energy” scheme. Ornithologists also derive a good income from developers for providing impact assessments for planning applications or for monitoring existing wind farms for bird collisions.
Various official bodies, such as Scottish National Heritage (SNH), are responsible in law for protecting bird populations. One particular scheme that sparked a long and fierce controversy – and was mildly opposed by the RSPB – was a wind farm now under construction at Edinbane on the Isle of Skye, on hills known to attract young golden eagles and sea eagles. A first run of the SNH “collision model” showed that, over 25 years, this was likely to kill 137 golden eagles, nearly 10 times the permissible conservation limit of 15. But when SNH revised a key parameter, the “avoidance rate”, from 95 per cent to 98 per cent, and the developer removed nine turbines from its plan, the result was that predicted eagle deaths fell to exactly 15, allowing the scheme to go ahead.
Details of what Mr Duchamp calls “the scandal of the Edinbane wind farm” are included in a complaint he has lodged with the European Commission (also available on his Iberica 2000 website), asking Brussels to be much more rigorous in enforcing its own environmental legislation, such as the Birds and Habitats Directives, which are widely disregarded by national authorities. The Commission did order the Scottish Executive to veto a 178-turbine wind farm on the Hebridean island of Lewis (for once, strongly opposed by the RSPB) because its devastating effect on eagles and other protected birds would breach its directives. But many similarly damaging schemes on Lewis and elsewhere are still being driven forward as part of Edinburgh’s mad dream that 40 per cent of Scotland’s electricity should come from wind and other renewable sources within 10 years.
Large birds of prey are far from being the only victims of wind farms, and the thousands of miles of power lines needed to connect them to the grid. A study cited by Birdlife International shows that, each year, power lines can be responsible for up to 800 bird kills per mile. Vast numbers of other birds are killed by turbines each year, as are countless thousands of bats, which also seem to be drawn to wind farms, and which recent studies have shown die with their lungs distended by air pressure from the blades.
For the rest of us, it is a criminal offence to kill bats and golden eagles. But it seems that all those under the spell of the infatuation with windpower and global warming can claim exemption from the law. In return for ludicrously small amounts of very expensive electricity, wildlife must pay the price for their dreams.