Jerome a Paris has a first-rate overview of wind power on Daily Kos. I’m in a windy part of the world where this form of energy has great potential, and there is much local enthusiasm for wind turbines. Our first one is up just north of town, where I can sometimes catch a peek of it from my neighborhood when the trees aren’t all covered with leaves and where we always see it as one of the landmarks as we’re driving into town. I think they’re beautiful. Coal plants may be less obtrusive when they can be kept distant, but I’d rather see a row of wind turbines on a ridge than a smokestack on the far horizon.


  1. says

    I’d rather see a row of wind turbines on a ridge than a smokestack on the far horizon.

    Tell that to the people on the Canadian shore of Lake Huron. They want to build some windmills just north of the Bruce Nuclear Plant. But residents do not want them because they will ruin the landscape and it will interfere with bird migrations.

  2. says

    Tell them to read the article that PZ linked to, those issues have been dealt with. Personally, I don’t see how it is more damaging to the landscape than a 150 foot pipe belching smoke into the air, but whatever.

  3. says

    I remember seeing rows of windmills on top of hills in Germany. The Europeans are way ahead of Americans when it comes to using alternative energy sources.

    And I would think that the birds would learn to avoid the windmills after a while.

  4. says


    Sorry to inform you that not all of the issues have been “dealt with”. As is the case for most situations advertised as win/win, there are some thorny details. Here are a couple; you can find more if you want to expand your research beyond one article.

    1 – Prairie grouse (e.g. lesser & greater prairie chickens) will not nest within a mile of noisy man-made structure. Industrial-strength windmills fit that definition. 95% of the habitat for nesting for these species has been usurped by humans, There are several proposals to build windfarms in the Flint Hills of Kansas. I think that is wrong. What do you think?

    2 – There is a proposal to build windfarms off the Texas Gulf Coast, in line with the spring migratory paths of dozens of bird species. Most of the populations of these birds have declined by 60-90% in the past few decades. In the spring they hit the Gulf Coast nearly exhausted, often flying at only a few hundred feet of altitude. No real data here, but a solid hypothesis is that we would kill quite a few of these birds every year. When will we kill the last Cerulean Warbler? Will it be worth it?

    Bottom line#1. Windfarms are great in habitats that are already trashed by humans. Pig farms, wheat fields, Milwaukee, the roof of your house, etc. Windfarms should not be tolerated in high-quality wildlife habitat (of which there is precious little left) or in places where migratory birds funnel through. Would you support a windfarm in Pacific old-growth forest, if one was economically feasible?

    Bottom line#2. Conservation. Note that no power company is planning to take a coal plant offline if their pet windfarm gets built. These are being built to quench the insatiable thirst of Americans for electrical power. Maybe we already use enough, or even too much. Maybe we can afford to conserve enough to make this unnecessary.

    You can do some research to discover that a citizen of this country uses many times more electricity than anyone else in the world. Can we try conservation, or at least mention it before we fall for the notion that more consumption is the only option? Can you see that coal or wind is a false dichotomy? There might be other paths, like living a bit smaller on the planet we share with a dwindling number of species.


  5. says

    Here in my home state of Victoria, Australia, wind farms are bitterly apposed by mainly upper middle class people who own holiday houses along the coast.

    Recently the Australian Federal environment minister, who’s never seen a uranium mine or forest logging project he didn’t like, blocked the construction of a wind farm here because the environmental impact study he commissioned reported a single threatened yellow-bellied parrot had a 1 in 1000 chance of flying into a wind turbine within the next 100 years.

    Coincidentally, the proposed wind farm would have been in a lower house seat his party holds by a few hundred votes.
    Also, coincidentally, his party receives a fortune in donations from Australia’s coal industry, which sees any alternative energy source as competition.

  6. Coragyps says

    Windmills lost a little of their charm for me over the last five years or so, since we got fifty to a couple of hundred on top of every mesa within two hours’ drive of here. They are impressive up close – the propellor tip is travelling 200 mph+ and makes a wicked sound when you stand right underneath.

    The dead birds will learn the quickest to avoid them. (The coyotes may like that, though.) I understand that red lights, like ours all have, are worse on night-migrating birds that white strobes are. But we stargazers prefer red, or no light at all.

  7. Coragyps says

    Oh, I meant to mention: that little generator unit that the propellors hook to is about the size of a Winnebago motor home. The blades are about 75 feet long. The things are big. Don Quixote might be taken aback tilting at them.

  8. nolagal says

    To back up and expound on Dave’s insightful comments, the issues with turbines have definitely not been fully worked out. I’m an ornithologist who studies migratory birds, and I too am very concerned about the drastic declines we’ve seen recently in migratory bird populations. A recent study of black-throated blue warblers found that migration itself is likely the most dangerous time, with > 85% of annual mortality occurring during the two migration periods (link to abstract here: Expanses of wind turbines will only increase the already-high mortailty rate.

    Wind turbines are demonstrably hazardous to birds, resulting in high mortality rates of songbirds, raptors, burrowing owls (a species of special concern in CA and listed as threatened/endangered in many states), even golden eagles (nationally protected). The Altamont Pass wind turbine facility is _conservatively_ estimated to kill over 4,700 birds annually (see As dead birds decay rapidly and/or are quickly predated, I would guess that number is very low. In fact, I read a study several years ago in Natural History magazine (can’t find the citation now) where a field was “seeded” with hundreds of bird specimens taken from collection. Researchers combing the field the next day found somewhere ~1% of the specimens, if I recall correctly – they’re hard to find.

    A colleague of mine actually worked as a bird monitor at the Altamont Pass site several years ago, and she said it was very disheartening work. Every day she would find dead red-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites, and, as mentioned above, burrowing owls and even the occasional golden eagle.

    I’m also an ardent conservationist, and believe we need to wean ourself off of our addiction to oil, coal, and other non-renewable resources. But every power source has its hazards (with the possible exception of solar) – hydropower has accelerated the near-extinction of the Pacific Northwest’s salmon runs, nuclear is far too dangerous, geothermal has resulted in pollution and even disruption of geologic fault systems and aquifers in California, and even wide-scale adoption of biofuels would result in destruction of the world’s remaining natural lands and drastic increases in (petroleum-based) fertilizers and pesticides.

    We need to conserve – drive less and bike more (or if you must drive, get a high-mileage car and carpool), turn off the lights/tv/computers/etc when not in use, buy products with less packaging, buy produce grown locally, etc etc – there’s a million ways we can reduce our energy consumption without sacrificing quality of life – heck, arguments could be made that getting it could improve quality of life (by outside more, being more active, being connected with your local community, etc.)

    If you haven’t already checked it out, this site offers an enlightening look at your “ecological footprint” by asking you several questions about your activities. It compares your “footprint” to those of people in other countries, and suggests ways to lighten your impact:


  9. says

    We’re going to have to cut down on our energy consumption, yes.

    But I don’t believe that’s going to get us anywhere by itself. Simply too much of the energy we now consume comes from sources that present great ecological dangers or will run out too soon or both. Carpooling and eating locally grown food and turning off lights and such will help; every little bit helps, but it won’t, say, reduce our consumption by a factor of four or five, and I think that’s the kind of thing we’re going to have to do to get off coal and oil if we don’t develop any new power sources. To do that we’d have to go back to a preindustrial standard of living, and most of us would probably die in the process. I know there are people who actually seem to be looking forward to this, but I’d like to know about alternatives. Every source of energy has its problems, but shutting down our civilization has problems too.

  10. says

    If found reading the wind power post frustrating. It has a graph that says wind power costs about 4.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is different from the 3 cents a kilowatt-hour I got from another source. The same graph also says that wind is cheaper than nuclear power which it says costs about 4.6 cents a kilowatt-hour but I have another source that says nuclear power costs about 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. Why can’t people get their facts and figures straight? Do we have to become engineers and do the calculations ourselves to discover the truth?

    And the post is weird because it says that wind power is good because it creates jobs. This is just silly. A power source that needs less maintenance work to operate safely and efficently is obviously better than one that requires more. What would you rather have? A car that had to be serviced every 1,000 kilometers or one that only had to be serviced every 15,000 kilometers?

  11. says

    Wonder how the migratory birds will fare when their coastal winter habitats are under water from global warming and they’ve been wiped out by tropical diseases.

    All man-made structures kill birds. Bad, yes. But the age of concentrated energy sources is thinning out. We are going to have to figure out how to collect energy from less concentrated sources like the wind, waves, and sun. Since this is somewhat more complicated and expensive (perhaps unless you count ancillary costs) we will learn to use the energy more frugally.

  12. says

    I used to be quite pro-windmill, especially after seeing the acres and acres of them in the California desert. Here in WV we’ve started to get more complaints about bird and bat kills, as well as human proximity issues. It seems there are some being sited right near property lines so that they cast really annoying rhythmic shadows and make noise for the neighbors, but not the owners of the land, and while this is a side issue, it’s firing up opposition. That issue is one that can be fixed with zoning. However the bat kills don’t seem to be levelling off (ie they aren’t learning the best route, as suggested above).

  13. says

    Can you put an ultrasonic stunner on a wind turbine to blast bats when they approach? The sort of thing postal workers use to make dogs suffer. That way the bats will suffer pain and learn to stay away instead of just dying when a huge blade swacks into them. It’s hard to learn anything when your first mistake costs you your life. It should also work on birds.

  14. ronbailey says


    I realize that you guys are the scientists and I’m the village idiot around here, but the idea that birds could somehow learn to avoid the turbines sounds ludicrous. Like any other critter, our feathered friends will either evolve and adapt to the change in their environment, or face extinction from it…

    BTW, great blog, PZ. I’ve been a long-time reader, and I’m a big fan. Keep up the good work.

  15. says

    About conservation: simple things, like switching off the lights when you leave or not using the aircondition when the temperature is bearable are much better solutions. I don’t think many people would like to return to localisation (no flights, no exotic food etc) – I certainly don’t. Some self-restriction as a result of education and information might be better than finding a way to produce more energy.

    Windmills are a solution, not the solution. Personally, I prefer noisy blades to smoking chimneys, but this doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like some more research on making them less “intimidating”. In fact, I think this is the most important part. Computers used to be huge, now you carry them in your hand and they are more efficient, I think.

  16. says

    UMM is big on alternative energies: we’ve got the wind turbine, but we’ve also got a biomass facility. Our local USDA labs also do a lot of research on crops that could provide oils for biodiesel and so forth. We do have an ethanol plant in town, although we’re a little less enthusiastic about that: making fuel from corn kernels is awfully inefficient and is more a megafarm subsidy than an energy source (it’s more of an energy sink).

    Our local turbine isn’t noisy at all. You practically have to be right under it to hear it, and then it’s a kind of low, rhythmic “swoosh…swoosh…swoosh” sound. Maybe it needs to be a little noisier, actually, to discourage birds and bats.

  17. says

    There are a ton of windmills south of you in Iowa, which I saw for the first time as I was evacuating New Orleans due to Katrina.

    They were kind of cool looking, though as others mentioned, I’ve heard that some of them can be kind of noisy.

  18. jeff says

    I’m often puzzled how skeptical people seem of alternative power sources. Clearly everything has its problems, but compared to non-renewable, global-warming-causing sources, we must be talking many orders of magnitude here. It seems like at this point, we’re running out of time for us progressive types who should be making this happen to be bitching about the 12 birds who run into them each year. Yes, it’s unfortunate, yes, we should try to keep it from happening, but this is the nature of decision-making – weighing the pros and cons. Consider the scales involved here – global warming has the potential to pretty much wipe out everything as we know it; being unprepared for oil running out has the potential for massive unrest (which would probably, somehow, kill birds… we’d probably burning them for power or something).

    “nuclear is far too dangerous,”

    This just isn’t true anymore. Nuclear has a bad rap, and I think it will be a neccessary component of our energy plans for the next 50 years. Nuclear power has relatively (key word) little waste/pollution compared to, say, a coal-burning plant.

    I was talking about power issues with a friend’s dad, and I liked what he said: ‘you know, people are always like, “wah, wah, it would take a space the size of arizona to make enough solar/wind/etc power to meet our demands”, to which I say, “great, we’d better get going then”‘. There’s plenty of shithole wasteland in this country I’d love to see covered with solar panels and wind turbines.

  19. says

    I would rather see more wind turbines than more acreage dedicated to corn that will be inefficiently rendered into alcohol.

  20. Melusine says

    I don’t have a problem with the aesthetics of wind turbines, however the points made above by Dave and Nicole can’t be understated. The Texas Gulf Coast is a huge migratory bird waystation, and birds coming north from Mexico and Central America do fly low–many very low. They are developing methods of using electronic pulsing and such as ways to turn away the birds, but birds can still become disoriented by other factors. The thing is not to put the turbines in heavily, trafficked migratory paths–period. Just as certain cows won’t breed under high-tension wires, we need to be smarter about how and where we place the turbines. The Gulf Coast would be disastrous, and certainly the tourists sites can’t then say, “Come see our 300 species of birds,” and then allow them to be killed off!

    Too, how the turbine blades reflect sunlight is as important as how windows are treated in skyscrapers. Bats have a built-in advantage, yay for them, unfortunately I watch a lot of doves and pigeons smack into even low-placed windows. Birds don’t learn that quickly!

    Conservation is pathetic in the US. Forget the little lightbulb in your house; the electric company supplies you with a book on watt-usage. Here in Houston, the most air-conditioned city in the US, it’s all AC that makes up your kilowatt usage…then the refridgerator, washing machine/dryer…the lightbulbs and stereos are negligible. Houston is an example of electric-idiocy; every tree cut down creates a nearly 10 degree differential in temperature. If I park my car under a tree, it saves my AC from working as hard, or prevents ice from forming on the roof. The electric company provides pamphlets on how to strategically place trees around your house to reduce kilowatt consumption, yet many developers ignore all this in the interest of cutting their costs, and then people complain about bird-doo. Every year the bird-doo complainers come out over the starlings’ mass nesting in downtown Houston. If people keep up this “not in my backyard” mentality and worry about the aesthetics of their cars (boo hoo, create better paint, go wash it)or a starling messing up their hair, then we will just continue on losing a species every day.

    There is also no mandatory recylcing in Houston. Not only do we waste incredible amounts of electricity via lighting and poor development, we fill up the landfills with much stuff that can be recycled. How does this all effect energy? I like my home-electronics so I’m not advocating pre-industrial living, but I use less than 1000 kw a month; it’s the big stuff that matters–not running your AC at 60 degrees, fuel-efficient cars, more solar where possible, not wasting so much light and using trees to your advantage. People tell me here that they used to be able to tolerate the heat more–well, there were more trees and crossbreezes in homes and a heck of a lot less reflecting cement, and such surfaces. With all these huge houses being built so close to eachother you don’t get the crossbreezes. A drycleaners that faces the southwest does not use AC and the wind comes right in the door making it tolerable, otherwise their electric bill would be huge.

    The US is incredibly gluttonous, generally speaking. I find it disheartening that we are not doing better when we’ve made so many other technological advancements. Several years ago Bush supported a tax break for businesses’ pricey SUVs and now talks about conservation–what kind of message did that send?! Leave Alaska alone and walk the talk starting with your father’s hometown, is what I say…and turn out the lights when you leave. #!@-:

    [Rant over, thanks]

  21. nolagal says

    Matt McIrvin and cp: yes, the conservation measures I listed (biking, reducing electricity use, etc.) will at best – even if adopted by everyone – only lead to a minor reduction in energy use, and are insufficient on their own. But I do believe that conservation – including these measures and much more – is an integral part of any future energy plan, and I believe it’s too often ignored. When I hear people talk about how to deal with current and upcoming petroleum shortages, all too often they simply want to substitute one energy source (biofuels, ethanol, hydrogen cells, fusion, whatever) for our current energy source, without changing our system at all. The point that I’m trying to get across is that _all_ energy sources have hazards. Furthermore, I don’t think it will be possible for any energy source to act as a direct substitute for petroleum and allow our energy usage patterns to continue as they currently exist. I believe life 100 years from now will be very different from that today, just as life today is dramatically different from that 100 years ago, and likely in new, creative ways we can’t yet imagine.

    It’s true that we won’t be able to revert to pre-petroleum energy levels without significant hardships – it’s not going to happen. But we do have choices in the sources of energy we rely upon in the future, and we can choose to use those that are most sustainable and least damaging. I imagine that this will involve many different strategies – solar, I hope, but probably also some wind, maybe geothermal, nuclear (fusion?), and/or other sources we don’t yet know about. But we can minimize the harm – e.g., don’t put nuclear plants next to large cities, don’t place wind turbines in major migratory pathways or next to populations of endangered species, etc. Furthermore, the threats imposed on bird populations wouldn’t be such a concern if they weren’t already imperiled by other human actions, some of which could be easily remedied. The most significant threat is the destruction of critical breeding, overwintering, and migratory stopover habitats – if we identified and set aside critical habitat, we could balance the needs of humans and birds. Another major threat to migratory birds is very easy to fix, with no cost to humans – just turn off the lights in skyscrapers at night, and place falcon silhouettes or other shapes to visually break up expansive reflective surfaces so birds don’t fly into them unnecessarily (another major source of mortality).

    Phinky, coragyps, and ron bailey: it’s not quite that simple. Avian cognitive processes do not work the same way as yours and mine. Though many birds have impressive abilities to learn (in the way you and I understand that term) – e.g., the talking parrots, or nutcrackers that remember where they’ve cached thousands of nuts – most birds rely on innate, hard-wired behavioral responses to visual cues. These take hundreds or thousands of years to change in a population – it certainly does not happen in the lifespan of an individual bird (e.g., songbirds exposed to cowbirds, a nest parasite, >100 years ago are just now beginning to learn to identify and kick out cowbird eggs, after sometimes drastic population declines).

    In summary, I think any future energy plan needs to involve _both_ conservation measures and alternative energy sources, and I believe that energy sources should be chosen and utilized/placed in ways that cause the least additional harm to biodiversity – maximizing our energy needs while minimizing environmental harm. My 2 cents worth…


  22. says

    If found reading the wind power post frustrating. It has a graph that says wind power costs about 4.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is different from the 3 cents a kilowatt-hour I got from another source. The same graph also says that wind is cheaper than nuclear power which it says costs about 4.6 cents a kilowatt-hour but I have another source that says nuclear power costs about 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. Why can’t people get their facts and figures straight? Do we have to become engineers and do the calculations ourselves to discover the truth?

    Lies, damn lies, and statistics, my good friend.

    In this apartment, where I’ve lived for 3.5 years, I’ve had a coal power plant right outside my window. All I ever see is it belching lovely smoke over the banks of the Wabash (how I long for my Indiana home, indeed). While there would no doubt be some dead ducks if they stuck a couple turbines on that hillside (and no, it wouldn’t replace the coal plant since Purdue uses that steam for campus heating, too), I can’t help but wonder what favors we’re doing them by dumping all that crap into the river, either.

    I very much like Nicole’s point:

    minor reduction in energy use, and are insufficient on their own. But I do believe that conservation – including these measures and much more – is an integral part of any future energy plan, and I believe it’s too often ignored.

    My single biggest beef with the president’s energy policy is that reducing consumption isn’t even an afterthought; it’s nowhere in sight! Last winter, the government of Canada ran a One Tonne Challenge, which was a series of PSAs on TV, radio and print, encouraging people — and giving simple suggestions how — to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by one tonne this year. CBC got in on the act and did a bunch of human-interesty crap on people and how they were saving their one tonne.

    We’ve added weatherstripping, turned down the furnace, replaced nearly all our incandescent lightbulbs with fluorescent ones, and I even replaced my computer’s old power supply with a new high-efficiency one (since the old one blew up). It can make a noticeable difference in utilities — but no one, and I mean no one, in a position of political leverage is doing anything to encourage the use of a little less. Americans won’t conserve and they won’t pay it forward, even if it means saving money in the “long run” — like a year.

  23. cp says


    It will take too much time to educate people and make tehm see the need to conserve energy. Indifference is a “power” thing.
    I guess we should invest in low damage energy sources until then. Less time consuming than educating selfish bas***ds.

  24. Ethan Rop says

    Aw man, now I feel stupid. I just did what I hate seeing other people do!

  25. Pseudo-Buddhaodiscordo-Pastafarian says

    Wind turbines are certainly a clean, quiet and beautiful way of generating renewable energy. However, there needs to be much more research into mitigating bird and especially bat deaths from impacts.

  26. says

    there is a nice summary of how wind power works provided by the AWEA.

    what’s lacking in all discussion of United States energy policy is federal direction. that lack is due to all kinds of reasons, including the many people who just don’t want the federal government to do anything but field a big military. there has also been IMO a deterioration in our collective sense of the commons or some notion of shared responsibility. wind power plants encounter opposition from those who might live nearby. but, then, so does nuclear power, or any other major power facility. worse, the advocates of non-renewables don’t deal with the repercussions of their policies. i agree that, suitably modernized, investments in
    nuclear power offer dollar-for-dollar more kilowatt hours than other forms. but noone wants to stand up and have nuclear waste, an inevitable byproduct, buried in their state. and, moreover, even if a central federal facility were identified and approved, noone wants the stuff transported through their state or neighborhood. and the public, through its federal government, doesn’t want to fund development of nuclear fuels which are less hazardous in proliferation possibilities or waste byproducts.

    so, people, it seems to me until we acknowledge this is a common problem — or until the federal government has the guts to knock heads together to do the common good like it does for defense — this problem is not going away.

    i often smirk at protestations that terrorists would attack large cities with dirty bombs or even nuclear weapons, if they had them. perhaps they would. if they did, that would simply indicate their targetting strategy is stupid. if you want to do maximum harm to the United States, target a concentration of oil and chemical refineries, concentrations that can be found in many places, including the Gulf Coast. because of lack of central planning, these spring up wherever the cost of doing business is cheapest. maximum harm is not achieved by maximizing “body count”.

    contrast our federal policy with that of many western countries, like Europe or even Middle Eastern countries. there natural resources like oil and gas belong to the country as a whole are permits are granted to develop and use them, with the country getting a cut, and also having right of access to results of mineral exploration, even if none is found or developed. here, their properties are privately owned, and results of exploration usually die with the company if it goes bankrupt.

    [bias warning! i’m an unabashed supporter of wind power, both Cape Wind, which is to be located near where my parents live, and our own projects in upstate New York, like New Wind Energy.]

  27. says

    I’ve tried looking into the power costs given by the wind post and it does look at though wind may actually be slightly cheaper than nuclear power, which surprised me. However it seems that once you get more than 15% of your total electrical power from wind its variability can raise costs. So it appears that the cheapest way to currently generate low emission power would be a combination of wind, nuclear and hydro power, while using thermal solar for hot water.