Nature Notes: Cause for Pause

There is no such thing as a free lunch

    Reading last week’s East Hampton Star about the proposed 200 megawatt wind farm in the ocean 30 miles off Montauk I envision either a free energy Shangri-la or a 256-square-mile death trap for migratory seabirds, which have been plying the same sea lanes back and forth up and down for the last 20,000 years or more.

    There is no such thing as a free lunch. It’s been repeated over and over ever since the Golden Greek culture printed it in Hellenic Greek well prior to 1 A.D. Take a look at land-based wind farms such as those in California which have been turbining away since a few years before the new millennium. Take a look at just one of those farms, the one at Altamont, where the Hell’s Angels killed an unruly fan at a Rolling Stones concert in 1969. The California Energy Commission has been tracking bird deaths there since the start of the farm’s operation. Over five years from 1998 to 2003, 54 golden eagles, 70 burrowing owls, 59 kestrels, and 217 red-tailed hawk bit the dust from collisions with turbine blades and other accidents.

    Certain safeguards were put into play following the accumulation of those statistics without much impact. In fact the number of avian deaths increased! From 2005 to 2010 the bodies of 105 golden eagles, 278 burrowing owls, 199 kestrels, and 394 red-tailed hawks were found strewn on the ground in the vicinity of the turbines. Estimates based on dead bird counts and other factors for wind farms across the United States suggest that about 570,000 birds are killed by turbines each year. The number is a little higher for bats — about 600,000 annually.

    Duke Energy Renewables, a subsidiary of the company famous for its polluting coal ash pits in the Carolinas, operates two wind farms in Wyoming. It was fined $1 million for killing eagles. How much is a dead eagle worth? No one can say. Wind farms situated along the coast of Texas kill thousands of birds and bats each year. Accurate numbers are elusive because the wind farm companies are reluctant to provide data. And now, the first offshore wind farm in the United States may be in the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston, Tex., in a very important flyway area for both seabirds and migrating land birds.

    Of the top 25 offshore wind farms in the world, 22 are in European waters. How many dead birds have they accounted for? No one really knows. Dead birds are easy to find on the ground if they haven’t been scavenged. When they fall into the ocean they are immediately eaten by some marine scavenger or drift away in the tides and currents. The truth of the matter is that very few peer-review studies by scientists have been undertaken with respect to the sea-based wind farms.

    So what kind of assurances that birds and other marine life will be minimally impacted are we given with respect to Deepwater Wind’s planned installation in the ocean off Montauk? Absolutely none. Such pre-studies are incredibly difficult and incredibly costly and generally only speculative at best. And what will be the impact on commercial and recreational fishermen who have been plying those same waters down through the ages, many of whom are based in Montauk and Long Island’s South Fork?

    On the other hand, solar power is extremely benign to birds. There are very few if any records of birds (or bats) being felled by solar panels. A big offshore wind farm here is a dicey situation at best. It was Thomas Edison, himself, who at the beginning of the last century said about our great sun, “Free energy, when?” After all, he reckoned that the sun would be around for another billion years or more giving us 12 daylight hours in every revolution of the earth, day in, day out. He never mentioned the wind.

    Larry Penny can be reached via email at