Whirly Birds

The winds are mine, as are the metal trees below, the velvet lime of Livermore, and the power to slay and devour furry, fuzzy creatures: Rabbits and mice and ground squirrels — the warm, meaty, succulent rodents — line my nest like trophies, they crumple so sweetly in my talons. Glide. Be patient. The sinews stretch in my seven-foot wings, the hunger calls and clenches. I'll soon see flesh beneath me, I'll strike like a sudden shadow, giving the doomed barely enough time to squeak before I deliver my black-feathered sucker punch from the sky. A small fawn would be nice today; my cruel beak has done justice to one or two. But glide. Find an easy squirrel. The thermals hold me like a hero, the breeze carries me on its shoulders — should I swoop down to the metal trees? These thrones are the favored haunt of red-tails and vultures and my fellow golden eagles: eggshell white and bare as a newborn chick, three branches that spin with not a leaf on them to obscure the view. But my brain locks, choosing for me before I'm even aware, finding the object of my lust before my eye even records it, and I flap and tuck and dive, and the world is a blur, I'm a predatory bullet, pushing 50, 100, 150 mph — and is a metal tree in the way? — but I'm full out, feathers sleek, talons splayed toward that stupid, stump-still body, and I can see I've got him, he's dashing for a hole, but for this squirrel it's too late! It's too late! It's too …

PPPFFFTTT! Decapitation, amputation, bird death. The sound of feathers flying into the windmills that churn and produce our beloved electricity. On the face of it the sound might seem rather benign — it's not, after all, the kabloom of car bombs or the pop of machine guns spraying post offices. Birds die in collisions all the time, and unless you're a true avian aficionado, you might think the sound no more significant than the lump in your morning oatmeal.

But switch on the reading light (pppfffttt) and think again, for the sound of eagles expiring in midflight is a million-dollar threat to American dreams and greenbacks. It's a sound that's giving migraines to environmentalists and biologists, knocking the wind out of America's newly blossoming wind-power industry, and agonizing millions of concerned and otherwise green citizens who have long hailed wind-power as an absolute energy mitzvah: a nonpolluting, renewable electricity source that doesn't spew greenhouse gases or risk a Chernobyl.

It now appears that windmills are annually killing thousands of birds worldwide. Among the hundreds of local victims each year are red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, turkey vultures, assorted owls — and federally protected species like Aquila chrysaetos, the golden eagle. And it turns out that the Bay Area — specifically Altamont Pass in the hills above Livermore — is the windmill bird-death capital of America.

“It's a very, very difficult dilemma,” Arthur Feinstein tells me. Feinstein is program coordinator of the Golden Gate chapter of the National Audubon Society, one of dozens of environmental groups that was unfalteringly pro-wind energy until news of the ongoing avian slaughter at Altamont emerged. “An environmentally nonimpacting industry is a dream come true. But killing lots of birds,” Feinstein sighs, “is not environmentally nonimpacting.”

Pending a solution to the bird bloodletting, Audubon has called for a moratorium on the expansion of wind farms experiencing bird problems (the wind industry rejects this option). The group is also asking the wind industry not to build in critical bird habitats or migration routes, and to withdraw its whirling blades from places where “it's massacring large numbers of critters,” Feinstein says. “I'm not sure the industry is willing to do that, either,” he adds, “but they're taking steps. They can see that if they're going to be environmentally damaging, and especially if they're killing cute cuddly animals, they're going to be in trouble.”

According to a California Energy Commission study, meanwhile, Altamont Pass windmills may have killed as many as 567 birds of prey over a recent two-year period. Some of the raptors, as they're known, die after hitting transmission wires or electric poles. Since an unknown number of the slain are dragged off and eaten by scavengers, tabulating mortality figures is difficult, says wildlife biologist Sue Orloff, author of the 1992 report. But at least 39 golden eagles are killed in the pass each year, the study concludes. Wind companies looking to turn a buck and raptors cruising for a bite both seek open country with strong winds, Orloff notes: Birds use wind to conserve energy, the industry uses wind to create it.

And the mangled results of that shared wind lust isn't just an inconvenience: It's a crime. Killing even one red-tailed hawk, turkey vulture or other raptor — in fact, killing almost any bird — is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Killing a golden eagle violates the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act as well: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating whether the Altamont bird deaths merit prosecution. More importantly, rough estimates put California's golden eagle population at a modest 500 breeding pairs (owing to the length and costliness of population studies, definitive numbers haven't been recorded).

“If 500 is the right figure, then 39 deaths per year can represent quite a significant number,” says Rich Ferguson, former energy chairperson for the California Sierra Club and research director for the nonprofit Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology. Ferguson — and the wind industry — hope that new studies currently underway will prove Altamont's golden eagle population is so robust that the losses aren't threatening the species. Is the Sierra Club pro-wind in the meantime? “As long as the industry's making an effort to solve the problem,” Ferguson says, “most environmental groups are trying not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.” [page]

The enviro-dilemma isn't helped by the fact that — as the wind lobby is quick to point out — there is always a dark side to light. Coal and other fossil fuel plants spew CO2, cause acid rain and contribute to global warming; natural gas (such a cheap high that it's referred to these days as the crack cocaine of the industry) scores the earth with roads and pipelines; hydropower kills fish and wild rivers; nukes produce radioactive excretia with a half-life of eternity. How many dead birds equal a dead fish equals an oil spill?

“The trade-offs aren't easy — there aren't any charts or formulas to guide you,” answers Robert Thresher, wind technology division director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, a branch of the Department of Energy. “But any time you generate energy, you force a habitat change for animals. Any time you mow the grass you force a habitat change for animals.”

Center stage for the bird habitat battle, meanwhile, is a surreal landscape of nubby green luminescence sprouting white metal towers that resemble a 120-foot anor-exic Edward Scissorhands. Altamont Pass boasts more than 7,000 windmills on 80 square miles — the largest single wind power facility on the planet. More than 3,500 of these windmills, aka turbines, are owned by Kenetech, one of the largest wind turbine manufacturers in the world, a company that boasts about 4,400 machines nationwide and revenues last year of $379 million. Kenetech turbines dot the Montezuma Hills of Solano County, the arid San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs and the windy ridges of Minnesota, Wyoming, Texas, Maine and Washington, among other states. The company's overseas customers — it has plans abroad for 930 new turbines worth $465 million by 1997 — stretch from Inner Mongolia to India and from New Zealand to the Netherlands.

The bird trouble couldn't come at a worse moment for the industry: For the first time since its birth in the early '80s, the wind power companies are producing sophisticated, reliable and cost-efficient machines, much of the technology the brainchild of Kenetech. Like any nascent form, the industry is hyper-vulnerable to attack, and the bird deaths are only one of the weapons deployed by foes to stifle wind power worldwide.

In eastern Washington state, a weird mix of pro-nuke activists and environmentalists put the kibosh on a proposed Kenetech project at an arid outcropping called Rattlesnake Ridge; opponents argued that windmills would threaten a unique landscape as well as a number of endangered birds. (Kenetech says its plans for the area aren't dead, but on hold.)

In the spectacular mountain splendor near Livingston, Montana, north of Yellowstone National Park — home of 60 mile-per-hour winds and movie stars like Glenn Close and Meg Ryan, celebrities like Jane and Ted, and writers like Thomas McGuane and Russell Chatham — Kenetech's plans for a wind plant stalled after critics called it a visual blight and a threat to golden eagles and other birds. (Kenetech and local observers add that some opponents were real estate developers looking to subdivide the land into ranchettes.)

In Britain, wind foes like Sir Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, refer to windmills in general as “lavatory brushes in the sky” (Ingham also consults for the nuclear industry). And actress Emma Thompson, novelist Iris Murdoch and more than 50 other glitterati joined hands to fight a proposed wind farm — this one not Kenetech's — in the immortalized moors of Haworth, the birthplace of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. Wind farms in Brontë country “are an assault upon our artistic and literary heritage,” the celebs wrote in the London Times. The English and Welsh complain, too, about turbine noise, an unfortunate droning that emanates from some early models.

And a bird problem even bigger than the one in Altamont Pass looms in Tarifa, Spain. The windsurfing capital of Europe, Tarifa is a bulge of land at the southern tip of the country, just 14 kilometers from Morocco. An estimated 350,000 birds — nearly the entire soaring bird population of Western Europe — migrate through Tarifa: Following instinct and their flocks, the birds have no choice but to fly over this shortest route between Africa and Europe, experts say. Their numbers, dozens of which are being chopped to death each year by windmills, include protected species such as the griffon and Egyptian vulture, lesser kestrel, eagle owl and white stork. Kenetech had already come under attack for installing windmills in Tarifa as part of a Spanish joint venture when it announced last year that it was expanding there, prompting slams from even within industry ranks.

“The situation should never have arisen and the industry ought to be kicking itself,” scolded the trade publication Windpower Monthly, which ran a jaw-dropping cover photo last winter of a fresh, huge and bloody vulture carcass held aloft by a utility worker, windmills shwinging in the background. (Kenetech CEO Gerald Alderson testified before the British Parliament last year that the problem was being solved and that the photo was a fake. “That was a posed picture associated with a bird that that individual or someone who he is associated with killed some place and took up on the site and had the picture taken,” Alderson said.)

Windpower Monthly believes otherwise, as do 13 European conservation organizations whose members have stumbled across at least 30 dead griffon vultures, most of them decapitated. The Tarifa bird trouble “cannot be kept quiet and it will not go away of its own accord” — ignoring the deaths could break the trust of environmentalists, something “tantamount to signing wind energy's death warrant,” the magazine states. “Never again should the wind industry put itself in the position of appearing environmentally callous.”

Kenetech must solve this problem, in other words, or it'll face a pppfffttt of its own.

Wherein commences Act Two in the birds versus windmills saga, in which Kenetech has hired a bevy of highly acclaimed avian experts to answer the question, “If eagles see so well, why in hell are they knocking into windmills?” The scientists are studying bird vision, examining eagle population studies, training kestrels in Skinner boxes so they'll reveal their color and pattern preferences (are they attracted by stripes or solids?) and investigating the efficacy of toilet-paper-roll-like devices, which are supposed to deter birds from perching on turbine towers. The researchers also hope to record a raptor crash on videotape — since the animals almost never do it in front of humans. Collecting oceans of data on the windswept hills of Altamont, the researchers have even strapped high-tech lights onto the backs of racing pigeons to figure out how that species avoids crashing into one-ton blades that spin at 200 miles per hour. [page]

“For $1 million, you can get a lot of people to do a lot of things,” as CEO Alderson quipped to Parliament.

Kenetech's research tab a year later: more than $2 million.
“They're wasting lots of time and money. Meanwhile, the birds keep getting whacked,” says one local bird expert, who can't give his name. Paranoia is soaring.

So intense has the windmill “avian mortality issue” become in wind and wildlife circles, some fear for their jobs if they speak out; others fear for their research dollars, while the companies fear for their futures. During my interviews at Altamont Pass, I was followed — I would say hounded, but the people were too nice — by not one but two Kenetech public relations wonks, a level of hovering that exceeds the obsessive chaperoning I endured during my visits to death row to interview crazed killers.

“This is an extremely serious matter for us and we as a company want to solve the problem. We're being held under extreme scrutiny, and rightly so,” says Clarency Grebey, a boyish and deeply effective corporate communications manager whose earnestness coats like schnapps. After a day with Grebey and flack Sheila Riley, I'm glowing with good will and almost ready to say screw the birds, bring on more windmills.

But the next morning I sober up: Kenetech is a giant: a company that according to Forbes magazine predicts revenues of $2 billion in the next few years. Kenetech has known about bird deaths at Altamont Pass since the early '80s: They've studied the problem full-force for three years, to very little avail. Why can't they figure this out? Why can't the birds?

Why can't I?”It's not exactly raining dead birds out there,” says Grebey, commenting on Kenetech's inability to solve the bird-death mystery, as we are bouncing along in a Kenetech company four-wheel drive on the private road through Kenetech Gate 8 to Kenetech turbines 234-to-240, where a clump of scientists are working on the bird problem and posing for a company video.It is the week before the major March rains; the sky is a foggy bruise and the wind is blasting. “Good,” Sheila Riley tells me from the backseat as she sees me struggling to get my hair out of my eyes and mouth. “That's good you brought something to tie your hair back with.”

The wind farm is a techno forest of eight types of windmills –three-bladed, two-bladed, lattice-tower, tubular-tower and one wincingly ovoid machine known as an eggbeater that resembles an IUD for giants. Not a live oak, not a bush in sight for perching. If I were a bird, I'd sit on the windmills, too.

This landscape draws not only golden eagles but American kestrels, prairie falcons, merlins, Northern harriers, an occasional bald eagle and lots of red tails and other hawks. The privately owned pasture land, which Kenetech leases, is ground-squirrel heaven because cattle have grazed it to a buzz cut. Ground squirrels need a good view when they pop out of their holes, and wouldn't stay here if the grass grew tall. If the ground squirrels vanished, lots of the raptors would, too.

“Why not just let the grass grow, get rid of the ground squirrels and keep the birds out that way?” I ask Grebey.

“We want the birds to be able to live here safely, we don't want to rob them of their prey base,” he replies. “Plus, turbines occasionally, very rarely catch fire, and if there's tall grass around, it'd be a fire hazard. And this isn't our land. We can't make the owners stop grazing their cattle.”

“But ground squirrels live all over the place,” I say. “Why not get rid of them here and let the birds find them somewhere else?”

Grebey is patient. “We don't want to alter the habitat any more than we already have.”

“How about putting up noisemakers?”
“Our researchers say noise won't work, even airports don't seem to bother birds. And we don't want to pollute with noise,” Grebey says.

“Strobe lights?” I persist. I am reminded, as I ask, of the relentless Alan Sherman kiddie song about a hole in a bucket, in which, despite interminable suggestions by dear Liza to help dear, helpless Henry fix the damn thing, in the end, there's still a hole in the bucket.

“I don't know about that one,” Grebey says.
I give up. Grebey parks the four-wheeler and we wander over to the researchers, some of whom stand by a carton of poking homing pigeons' heads. With the help of Ron Barsic, Kenetech research technician and full-time coop king, the research team has released about 6,000 of the pigeons on these hills.

“We've got 1417 and 1370 midway birds,” Barsic announces into a walky-talky, checking off the numbers of the slate-gray racing homers about to fly. He reaches into a portable dog kennel and gently grabs a pair, then stands with arms outstretched, a bepigeoned Jesus, birds beady-eyed in each fist.

The man on the other end of the walky-talky is biologist Melvin Kreithen, a University of Pittsburgh professor who specializes in bird sight and sound. One of five key players in an “avian research task force” recruited by Kenetech in 1992, Kreithen has designed a three-dimensional computerized tracking system to record pigeon flights, which he believes will help determine how birds perceive and avoid windmills, thereby giving Kenetech some idea of what sparks collisions. It's a research angle that's drawn guffaws: What do golden eagles, one of the largest birds in North America — birds that can kill animals as big as a fox — have in common with pecking pigeons? [page]

“It seems the only similarity is that they all fly,” wrote Cynthia Struzik, special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as she criticized the project to county officials.

“I was very hesitant to say yes to the research with pigeons,” Kreithen acknowledges. “I told people, 'No one's going to buy it.' But what pigeons and all birds have in common is they are flying machines.” Also, pigeons are accessible; wild eagles aren't. “So what pigeons are doing is helping speed up our knowledge,” Kreithen says.

He readies a video camera about 1,000 feet from a camera near Barsic — together they determine the birds' body english, simultaneously spewing data that reduces the creatures to map coordinates. At times the men have even attached chemical lighting devices to the backs of the birds so Kreithen can track them with his camera in the dark.

“It's the closest thing to getting inside a bird's mind,” Kreithen describes it.

Kreithen gives the ready signal. Barsic lets go of his pair. And the pigeons pay no attention to the turbines, flap upward into the distance, circle once, twice, get their bearings and zip right home to their lofts back at Kenetech headquarters in a Livermore industrial park. Does this prove anything?

“Oh, it has already,” says avian task force leader Tom Cade, a renowned ornithologist and Cornell University professor emeritus credited with saving the peregrine falcon from extinction. Cade is on a visit from Idaho, home of the Peregrine Fund, which he founded, and also home of a raptor research lab at Boise State University, where Kenetech work unfolds. He stands a distance from the pigeon production, binoculars bobbing from his neck, peering into the sky with the Obi Wan Kenobi air of the expert birder. We look for a golden eagle or hawk or kestrel, but the pigeons are currently the only avian act around. Truth number one about science sinks in: It can take forever. Truth number two: In order to make sure they're doing the right thing, scientists study things that most of us would call patently obvious.

What the pigeon work has revealed so far, say Cade and Kreithen, is that Birds See Turbines, or at least pigeons do. Pigeons seek the gaps between windmills. They fly over and under moving blades. They sometimes even fly between the stationary blades, which stop when the wind is too weak to generate electricity (a fairly frequent occurrence in the winter). Out of the thousands of research flights, only one pigeon has been killed and another lost part of a wing colliding with a blade. The two raptor deaths witnessed by humans involved a red-tailed hawk attempting a landing on an operating turbine; an American kestrel died after it flew through moving blades.

“Nothing we do can reduce mortality to zero,” says Cade, who is joined, as he speaks, by Boise researcher Hugh McIsaac. The raptor deaths, Cade notes, seem mainly relegated to Altamont Pass and Spain, so the problem is at least narrow in scope. And Cade is optimistic about finding solutions. “Nothing is 100 percent effective,” he says. “But we figured if we could do something that was 50 percent effective, that would be great.” The pigeons will help Kenetech learn how to position turbines, he says. Meanwhile, back in Boise, McIssac's job is to figure out which patterns — Indian madras? Scotch tartan? –make raptors sit up and take notice.

McIsaac is working with American kestrels reared in Skinner boxes, the stimulus-and-response environment pioneered by behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner. The scientists' working theory is that eagles become intensely focused while hunting prey, and that in the absence of an avian “stop sign,” they're likely to smash full-throttle into a windmill. Maybe painted blades will help, the theory goes.

So why not test eagles in Skinner boxes?
“Smaller birds are easier to handle and less dangerous,” explains McIsaac, research assistant professor, whose 18 kestrels have learned to signal — by sticking their heads through a choice of windows — whether they can distinguish lines from solid gray. When the birds poke their head through the window displaying a black-and-white pattern, they're rewarded with food. Wrong window, no grub.

“We may eventually look at different colors,” McIsaac says, but that's a long way off. In the meantime, in order to speed things up, the avian task force asked Boise State freshmen to choose the black-and-white pattern that they saw best. The human favorite — stripes — will be painted on a small sampling of blades at Altamont Pass sometime this spring. Since it's known that pigeons see in ultraviolet, Kenetech will use special ultraviolet paint.

“The pattern that was picked has not been tested on the kestrels yet,” McIsaac says. He concedes that it's hard to know if freshmen can be compared to birds. “On the other hand, birds are vertebrates as are humans and there are similarities in the structures of the eye.”

The windmills hum. Pigeons whiz by. I think about the bald eagle in Montana that dove into the mountain lake in front of me and pulled out a flapping fish, and about an earlier talk I'd had with McIsaac by phone.

Despite myths to the contrary, eagle's eyes aren't so great, he'd said. They might see twice better, but not vastly better than humans. [page]

“You mean humans could see fish in water from up in the sky?” I'd asked.
“Under certain conditions,” he replied, “yes.””Excuse me,” brays a local enviro when I tell him about the eagle eyes. “When was the last time you saw a little mouse running through the fields from a mile away?””I think the pigeon studies and the kestrel studies are just a waste of time,” Audubon's Feinstein agrees. “There's so little that's known — there's almost no research in this area — they're just grasping at straws.”

“After five years, that's progress? Buying a can of paint?” asks Al McNabney, vice president of conservation for Audubon's Mount Diablo chapter, when he hears of Kenetech's plans for windmill stripes.

Boise State students determining the most visually distinctive patterns for pigeons that are standing in for golden eagles being compared to trained kestrels does not, in other words, strike some observers as research time well spent. And though critics have a number of different ideas about what Kenetech should do at Altamont Pass, on one thing all agree: It's crucial — perhaps more crucial than anything else — that someone resolve the size and mortality rate of the local golden eagle population.

“'What should we paint the blades?' — that's not the right question,” says Jan Beyea, senior scientist of the National Audubon Society, speaking from New York. Kenetech should not have to bear the burden of research all alone, Beyea adds: The government and other wind industry giants should help, too. “But the first issue is how many kills are going to have an impact on the bird populations. And secondly, how are they being killed?” he says. “And I would say that in order to do that you're going to have to spend two and a half times what they're spending now.”

No long-term study is in the works, but half of a two-year golden eagle population study has been completed, funded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And according to the principle investigator, ornithologist Grainger Hunt, at least another year of work must be done before any conclusions can be drawn. Hunt, a soft-spoken, long-limbed man who works with the University of California at Santa Cruz predatory-bird research group, has spent the past year piloting a plane over Altamont Pass to check on the 50 golden eagles he's radio-tagged. The huge birds mate for life, need as much as 60 square miles of territory for hunting, and struggle to survive amid urban sprawl. Kenetech officials are fond of saying that the species has found such a fertile niche in the semi-wilds of Altamont Pass that 39 deaths a year are manageable — the area is a golden eagle capital of the world.

“It is among the richest in the world,” nods Hunt. In the rugged miles of countryside around the windmills he found about 50 breeding pairs, many on active nests, he says. “But to say that the numbers show the population isn't at risk — that's premature.” Hunt cannot tell yet whether chicks are surviving, whether when nests become vacant they are filled, whether the numbers are stable.

“In fact, the population seems to be down,” says Hans Peeters, a Chabot College biology professor working with Hunt who says he's done research in the area since the late '70s. “While I can still find the adult eagles in their territory and they still breed every year or so, I don't see the number of subadults” — birds less than four years old — “that I used to see,” Peeters says. “Kenetech has mounted an all-out assault on the problem,” he continues. “They have assembled an absolutely topnotch research team and spent a lot of money and they really are trying to find a solution, and for that they should be commended. But they sure as hell haven't solved anything at Altamont.”

The solutions, critics say, are born in matters practical.
During the year Hunt used radio transmitters to track eagles — two of which died hitting turbines — he noticed that raptors are fond of sitting on the machines. The turbines are computer activated: The blades stop when winds are low and start when the air moves fast enough to churn juice. It makes sense, critics say, that when the wind rises and the blades suddenly spin, the birds flap off and get chopped. And, critics add, Kenetech should install windmills — unlike most of their old Altamont models — that don't offer dozens of metal cross-hatches so convenient for raptor perching.

The company has just recently started testing “perch guards” and inviting raptors from the Lindsay Museum, a Walnut Creek wildlife rehabilitation and nature center, to come out and test them — the goal is to make birds uncomfortable. Kenetech is also marketing smooth, tubular towers that offer fewer perch possibilities.

But Peeters says nothing will work until the rodents disappear.
“You've got to control the prey base out there, whatever it takes,” he says. “You're dealing with hundreds of thousands of ground squirrels. They could hire some town boys, send them out there with .22s.”

That would make the animal rights groups happy, I say.
“Well, you've got to choose,” he says. “It's one or the other.” He pauses, thinking of a better way to say this. “You cannot have golden eagles around these towers,” he says. “The two are simply not compatible.”But divorce isn't in the cards. Propagation is.”We're cranking out 20 of these babies a week,” says Kenetech's Grebey, standing in the Livermore company machine shop at the feet of its brightest, newest star: the 33M-VS, a 28,000-pound upwind, active yaw-drive machine with variable pitch and speed controls, in windspeak. It was designed by Kenetech with help from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a research and trade group for the utility industry, and from PG&E and a New York utility. Hand trucks beep by with fresh loads; the Kenetech back parking lot is strewn with new machines ready for shipping. These turbines, developed since 1988 at a cost of $69 million, have been heralded as wind's second coming: machines that can finally make wind power competitive with natural gas, coal and the other old-line energy sources. [page]

Coincidentally, they also appear to be more bird-friendly, though much of the evidence isn't in yet.

“For every four of the older turbines, you only need one of the new ones,” Grebey says, which translates into fewer turbines for birds to hit. And because many are outfitted with tubular towers — they look like huge upright metal pipes — it's hoped that the new design will reduce raptor perching.

The modern windmill era dates back to the '80s, when gasoline lines and oil embargoes were still a part of the American zeitgeist, and the U.S. government unveiled a lip-smacking package of wind-industry tax credits in hopes that the nation could break its dependence on foreign oil. The resulting machines — most built in the constantly windy regions of California in proximity to large electricity markets — were good tax shelters but pretty lousy energy sources, says Jack Cadogan, a program manager in the Department of Energy wind program. Their clunky blades snapped and they broke down frequently. The electricity produced by the machines for PG&E and other utilities cost as much as 25 cents per kilowatt-hour, nearly five times more expensive than the 5 cent per kilowatt-hour standard rate of coal-fired and other plants (one kilowatt-hour equals the amount of energy needed to run 10 100-watt light bulbs for one hour).

When the tax credits dried up by 1987, so had most of California's wind companies. But Kenetech remained, doggedly working to develop a competitive machine. The market began growing and so did the stakes: a few small and midsize American wind companies made a comeback, and last year for the first time ever, Europeans produced more wind-generated electricity than the U.S., says energy analyst Paul Gipe, author of the forthcoming Wind Energy Comes of Age. “Germany will soon be the largest producer,” Gipe predicts. The wind energy market could be worth $2 billion to $4 billion by the end of the century.

Into this arena, the 33M-VS was unveiled. The machine's computer-adjusted fiberglass blades tilt up and down to catch optimal gusts and sweep 108 feet in diameter: More important, the blades speed up or slow down depending on the breeze. Older windmills, in order to feed a constant frequency of electricity to utility companies, operate at one speed even when the winds rise, imposing stressful torque on the rotors not unlike what happens when you drive a car downhill in first gear, says Grebey. But the efficient 33M-VS adapts to high winds, and it produces power at 5 cents per kilowatt-hour or less, the company says.

Not surprisingly, the news has filled the sails of the U.S. wind industry, which aims to provide 10 to 20 percent of the nation's electricity needs by 2030 — a goal that can only be reached if Kenetech and other companies are wildly successful. The nation currently claims 17,000 wind turbines — more than 90 percent are still in California — which provide enough electricity to serve the residential power needs of San Francisco or Detroit, according to EPRI. But thousands of megawatts remain untapped. North Dakota alone is so windy it could supply more than a third of the electric consumption of the entire Lower 48; 14 states suffer winds equal to or mightier than California's. And the benefits of using wind can be enormous: The electricity generated in California alone replaces the energy equivalent of 5 million barrels of oil and avoids 1.3 million tons of carbon emissions, EPRI estimates.

But is all this for the birds?
“We are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Kenetech vice president William Whalen, head of the National Park Service under President Jimmy Carter. “We're addressing the bird problems, we're developing technology and we're confident that the equipment we're putting in the field will have a lot less problems than the old equipment.” Whalen seconds Tom Cade's prediction: “Kenetech will reduce the mortality strikes by 50 percent.”

The company is promising to consult, in the future, with bird experts and conservation groups before building wind plants (it has already done so in Maine and other states), and it is apologizing for Tarifa, Spain. Kenetech didn't originally know about the trouble there, Whalen says. In its expansion plans, Whalen says Kenetech will outfit Tarifa turbines with radar systems that will shut down the machines if migrating birds approach.

“If you step back and think about environmentalists' role in the world and the role of Kenetech, which is to provide a clean source of energy around the world, then you can certainly see a convergence,” Whalen says. “Our goals are mutual.”

And yet, they are not.
Environmental groups don't have to satisfy shareholders. Conservationists want to impose strict limits on where wind farms can be built. The wind industry, though it's willing to negotiate, would love to build wherever it finds bent trees and windsurfers. It doesn't want to pull out machines where there is bird trouble, critics say; it would rather paint them. It doesn't want to piss off bird lovers, they add: It would rather hire them.

And we, our computers ablaze, our air conditioners sweating, our monster trucks revving, our presidential limos idling all day at the curb — we, the world's energy hogs, would rather not light a candle against the darkness. PPPFFFTTT.It is another cloudy day, and I am burning fossil fuels to drive the back roads around Altamont Pass, looking for golden eagles. All the experts' voices burble back to me: You have to make a choice, they say. The windmills on either side of me stand flaccid; the breeze is low. Are these things as ominous as the derricks pumping oil and the smokestacks fouling the air and the hazardous wastes leaking into the groundwater? Of course not. But then again ….I screech to a halt at the sight of a dark-breasted bird. It's a turkey vulture, sitting on a turbine. I park on the gravel shoulder, and at the sight of me, the bird flies off — smart bird, I praise it — and lands on a blade farther off. [page]

The vulture stares silently down at me and I realize how weak the Kenetech song is. We're spending lots of money on research! And if we can prove there are plenty of eagles, then the slaughter is okay!

The environmentalists' song is no stronger. By accepting the compromises of the real world and enthusiastically supporting the establishment of the wind industry, they entered the devil's bargain that now prevents them from fighting the power companies. They can only pray that Kenetech will keep its promises in Spain. They can only applaud Kenetech's commitment to studies that have failed to protect a single bird. They can only counsel Kenetech critics to be patient.

Here in the almost wilds of Altamont Pass, the environmentalists and Kenetech have reached that point where solutions become problems — the point at which there is blood on the answer.

View Comments