As I have stated before, Audubon wholeheartedly supports alternative energy as a means of preventing the long-term effects of global warming on birds and other wildlife. That said, one promising form of alternative energy, wind energy, is not without its harmful effects, particularly bird and bat mortality.
Audubon was recently contacted by the clerk of Lake Township, Huron County, to advise its planning commission on how to write a good ordinance for the siting of wind turbines. On March 26, 2008, Tom Funke (director of conservation for Michigan Audubon Society) and I presented at a publicly-attended planning commission meeting which was attended by DTE Energy officials and elected officials of the township. On the way, we decided to stop at Michigan's first large wind farm, the Harvest Wind Farm, operated by John Deere, Inc. This windfarm, we had heard, was located between the small towns of Pigeon and Elkton in Huron County near the tip of the thumb:
We had asked for directions for finding the windfarm, so imagine our surprise when we saw this from a distance of 8 miles:
There would be no problem locating this windfarm. From 3 miles away it was becoming apparent how large these turbines were:
Up close, these machines were huge and impressive. There was a strange sensation of near awe at the spectacle of it. There are 32 turbines spread out over an area of perhaps 10 square miles, each approximately 350-400 feet tall at the highest, with deceivingly fast blades which appeared to be spinning rather slowly at first glance.
The size of the housing was nearly that of a small bus:
It may not yet be widely known, but wind power is no longer a thing of the future. It is a force of the present. Indeed, Governor Granholm's strong push for increased alternative energy in Michigan is well underway, with several more projects in the planning stages. The challenge as we move forward, including potential projects such as this one by DTE Energy in the thumb, is to do our best to prevent large mortality events at all wind farm sites. There are very few data to tell us how many birds will be affected by any given windfarm, so it is essential that sites be monitored for at least 3 years in advance of construction, and several years following construction. If large mortality events are noted, some effort must be put forth to mitigate the problem. The details of such mitigation are, in part, what local officials can consider as part of their ordinance.
Existing voluntary guidelines have already been put forth by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth, the American Wind Energy Association, and the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative. The Fish and Wildlife Service calls for no turbines within 3 miles of the lakeshore and at least 5 miles from any known active Bald Eagle nest. Although the numbers may be somewhat arbitrary, we do agree that shorelines often attract large concentrations of migrant and wintering waterbirds, raptors, songbirds, and other species, and should be avoided where possible.
In the case of Lake Township, the entire township is located within 3 miles of the shoreline, which borders the Coastal Saginaw Bay IBA. This IBA supports up to 4% of the known population of the Tundra Swan during spring and fall migration, as well as large numbers of ducks and migrating raptors. We simply do not yet know how vulnerable these groups of birds would be to wind development at this location. To follow this developing story check the Lake Township wind page.