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Safer for All Living Things

Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page B08

A year ago, a small but vocal group of critics of wind power said that proposed windmill farms in western Maryland and across Appalachia would put millions of migratory birds at risk of death by collision. Their predictions turned out to be fantastically false. Further, scientists believe that properly located wind farms could have zero -- yes, zero -- effect on resident and migratory bird populations across Appalachia.

Now concerns have been raised about wind farms causing bat fatalities ["Researchers Alarmed by Bat Deaths From Wind Turbines," front page, Jan. 1]. Bat fatalities have been recorded at three Appalachian wind farms, including the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in Tucker County, W.Va., where the 2004 death toll was estimated at 1,500 to 4,000 bats.

Although these bat deaths are unlikely to have a biologically significant effect on the resident or migratory bat populations, they are cause for concern. Bats are vital to ecosystems because they consume insects that are harmful to forests, human health and agriculture.

Researchers are unsure why the bats are hitting the windmills, but they already have some solid leads on prevention. For example, at the Mountaineer facility, it was observed that most bat fatalities occurred in summer months, usually just before and after storms and on warm nights with little wind. Scientists speculate that these conditions affect the bats' echo-location abilities. This pattern, if it holds true, could allow wind farms to shut down when summer storms or warm, low-wind evenings are predicted. Windmill blades also can be "feathered," or turned sideways, so that their rotation is slowed, which could reduce bat strikes greatly.

Another possibility for lowering bat fatalities is the use of an "acoustic deterrence." Researchers say it might be possible to rig the windmills to broadcast a high-frequency sound inaudible to most humans but enough to steer the bats away from danger.

We desperately need clean sources of energy such as wind power -- and on a big scale. The effects of global warming caused largely by dirty sources of power, such as coal-burning plants, are already evident in our region -- from the water-level rise of the Chesapeake Bay to the spread of infectious diseases to the growing impact on agriculture in Maryland and Virginia. Global warming is bad for bats, people and all living things.

Americans are a problem-solving people, so the idea that we cannot quickly address this unexpected challenge in Appalachia doesn't wash. The real threat to bats is coal and global warming, not windmills.

In the past dozen years, 490,000 acres of Appalachian mountain forestland have been turned into a moonscape by "mountaintop removal" to mine coal. This devastating coal-mining process is going on in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and, especially, in nearby West Virginia.

How many Appalachian bats were exterminated in the past dozen years as a byproduct of this process? Surely millions. At least 244 species of birds have been affected too. People, especially children, also are suffering.

Thanks to regulatory help from the Bush administration, another 326,000 acres of prime Appalachian land are scheduled for mountaintop removal in the next seven years. This means that between 1992 and 2012, the equivalent of the Maryland panhandle will be blown up. That's right: Garrett County, gone; Allegany County, a wasteland; half of Washington County, a parking lot.

And this devastation is done before the coal is even burned. After combustion comes acid rain and the code-red smog days; skyrocketing childhood asthma; and suffocating nitrogen flows into the Chesapeake Bay. We get the soot and the mercury poisoning of pregnant women. And we get global warming.

Left unchecked, global warming is expected to cause the extinction of a quarter of the world's land-based plant and animal species by 2050. That would include, of course, lots of bats and birds. Maybe there'll be a heavy toll on us, too.

Some critics say wind power does nothing to alter coal consumption. But wind farms in Pennsylvania and West Virginia already are reducing the amount of coal that would otherwise be burned to power our regional grid. More important, the Maryland Public Service Commission projects that the state will need a staggering 11 million megawatt hours of new electricity capacity by 2010. Virginia will need about the same.

Where will we get this electricity? Natural gas prices are so high that gas-fired power plants no longer are being built. That leaves wind and coal as the only two power sources that investors are willing to back.

It's clear to a growing number of Americans that the future of our world depends on clean, renewable wind power. And the sooner we get there, the better -- for us and the bats.

-- Mike Tidwell

is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.


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