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Wind Power: What Is It We Are Trying to Save?

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Even if the naysayers are right and they produce little else, wind farms most certainly generate debate. Ever since they started to become a tangible reality over a decade ago, popping up across our treasured landscapes and punctuating our horizons, they have thrown up questions that draw straight into our relationship with the idea of global warming. Among doubts of their efficiency, cost and reliability and fears of their aesthetic impact on our countryside, a more basic question is raised: how serious are we prepared to believe the threat of climate change really is, and how much are we prepared to forsake to try and avoid it?

The answer, for many at least, seems to be not very, and not much. But the argument has become misplaced. In trying to deal with an issue that has come about due to our disregard of the natural world we live in, we have fallen again into an entirely human centric approach, our hands on our wallets and our eyes on our favorite picnic spots. This is, of course, understandable. Money is tight, and the beauty of our countryside important. But, as wind farms will continue to be built, the result is that they are moved to areas where land is cheap, and human habitation scarce. Unfortunately, these tend also to be the areas where biodiversity is rich, and endangered species populous. In trying to keep renewable energy as inconspicuous and inconsequential as possible, we end up blighting the very thing we set out to protect.

A while ago the RSPB released a map showing the areas most sensitive to wind farms in England and Scotland, based on their levels of biodiversity and fragility of their bird populations. Sometime later, the Guardian released a map of all the wind farms, both completed and proposed, across UK. The correlation is obvious; our wind farms are gravitating to the areas where they are most damaging.

Of course there is another element at play here; wind. These same areas, removed from human habitation, are often where the weather is at its most extreme and, across Europe, where wind speeds are consistently highest. But renewable energy companies aren't alone in looking to harness this energy. Migrating birds, especially larger species and birds of prey, choose their routes largely in accordance with wind patterns, using the strong currents found above high and open terrain to propel them forwards in their journeys. When the two meet, there are bloody consequences.

This has been the case at the poorly sited wind farms at Nevarre and Tarifa in Spain and, more famously, at the vast site that spans the Altamont pass in California. In these cases, hundreds of rare and endangered birds, most notably Golden Eagles and Griffon Vultures, are killed each year from collisions with wind turbines. Due to the long life span and low reproductive rates of these species, over time this will have a dramatic impact on their populations and, if the turbines remain in place, could ultimately lead to the extinction of the most fragile species in the regions surrounding the wind farms.

The mistakes made in the sitings of these farms could, at a push, be put down to inexperience, as all three farms were constructed in the early days of wind energy. Now, with the appropriate environmental impact assessments and careful siting, wind farms could be built that would have very little detrimental effect on both migrating birds and biodiversity.

Yet across Europe, wind farms continue to be erected in areas where they cause significant harm. Perhaps most distressing of these are those being thrown up across the migratory corridor that runs through Eastern Romania, along which hundreds of thousands of birds fly each year. With over 5000 turbines in the pipe line, the damage could be on a par with that in Spain and California.

Milvus Group, a Romanian ornithological and environmental organization, have been at the forefront of the opposition to the wind farms. Tamas Papp, the director of the group, explains that, when a site is being chosen, 'nature conservation is the last thing to be considered, falling behind the price of the land, proximity to power lines and opposition from locals'.

With no concrete legal standards set by the EU, it is a complicated process to challenge wind farm developments at the European court and, by the time the case is pushed through, they have invariably already been built. As a result, enforceable environmental standards fall generally to the whims of party politics and fluctuations in the economy. If there is anything that could benefit from centralised laws of the European state, it is the birds that move freely across it; but in this case the laws do not exist.

Of course, the impact of wind farms on birds and biodiversity pales in comparison to the predicted devastation that will be bought by rising temperatures, which the RSPB estimates that will commit between 15% and 37% of species to extinction by 2050. But until this move to clean energy is seen as more than just a political tool and a nifty investment, we threaten to lose sight of what it originally set out to achieve.

 
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