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Columbia Missourian

Putting wind energy into perspective

By John Schneller
May 30, 2008 | 5:00 p.m. CDT

We ran an interesting and informative story from The Associated Press last week about backwash from the cluster of wind turbines near King City. It was a meaningful dispatch on developments at the first wind farm in Missouri, made all the more relevant by the city of Columbia’s purchase of electricity from the complex for its renewable energy portfolio.

The story discussed potential health issues for those living near the giant windmills along with several other downsides of wind energy that included “killing large numbers of bats and birds.”

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The reference to bird mortality caught the eye of at least one reader who phoned the newsroom to take exception. The bird problem, the caller said, was more pronounced with older turbines that have smaller, faster-turning blades. The larger and slower turning blades like those in use at Missouri’s first wind farm don’t take the same toll, the caller explained.

He might be right.

Older wind turbines at Altamount Pass in California, implicated in the deaths of golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and other species, have been a lightning rod for the issue. USA Today reported in 2005 that the hundreds of turbines at Altamount Pass were killing at least 4,500 birds each year.

If you think those numbers are high, consider this: A Google search for wind farms and birds yielded 686,000 hits that included reports, studies and articles downplaying the connection between wind turbines and bird deaths. At the top of the hit parade was this headline from TreeHugger.com, which boasts it had 2.63 million unique visitors in March: “Common Eco-Myth: Wind Turbines Kill Birds.” I doubt if it would surprise you that other online sources highlight the danger.

A 2002 report from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on migratory bird mortality — fws.gov/birds/mortality-fact-sheet.pdf — demonstrates the difficulty scientists have had in coming up with conclusive evidence. The report estimates the number of birds killed by collisions with building windows “may account for 97 million to 976 million bird deaths each year.” That’s quite a range.

Communications towers kill at least 4 million to 5 million birds per year, the agency estimated. Power lines, cars, poisoning and cats were responsible for tens of millions of additional avian deaths.

Where does that leave wind turbines? Pretty far down the list. According to the 2002 report, wind turbines killed an estimated 32,000 birds a year.

Good journalism is specific and verifiable. Readers, more than ever, are helping to uphold those standards.

The best conversations, after all, are those that involve you.