TURBINES OF DEATH
SUB: how wind farms slaughter native wildlife, and worsen our health
WORDS BY MELISSA WISHART
With a healthy environment at the forefront of everybody’s minds lately, New Zealand is jumping headfirst into wind energy as a supposedly “clean, green” alternative to the current array of ways to generate electricity.
On the surface, it seems ideal. Wind is clean, free and renewable, and is described by the New Zealand Wind Energy Association to be “crucial to New Zealand’s energy future” – but are we looking at it through rose tinted glasses?
Wind farms are being hailed as the eco-friendly power source set to take the country by storm. In reality, while we may be protecting the earth from allegedly harmful toxins and gases, could the wildlife, and perhaps even the public, be suffering?
Wind turbines, while not burning any fuel or emitting any gases into the atmosphere, are an unreliable and expensive energy source. For example, Meridian had planned to construct a 52-turbine wind farm in the Moawhango Ecological District, an area which its own engineering experts admitted would have a capacity factor of only 36%, according to the Rangitikei Guardians, a group set up to oppose industrial wind schemes and educate the public on the impact. Furthermore, wind turbines also pose a serious threat to native New Zealand bird species, as well as our dwindling population of bats through the risk of collisions, habitat loss, and internal damage from changes in air pressure.
Research on bird strike at wind farms in New Zealand is pitifully minimal, and while companies looking to build wind farms are required to evaluate the area they wish to build in to see how it will affect the wildlife, proper studies into how many birds and bats are killed by them have not been done.
International studies, however, paint a worrying picture.
In Spain, the Spanish Ornithological society estimates that up to a shocking 18 million birds are killed annually by the country’s 18,000 turbines. Marc Bechard, an American biologist, told Nature “A blade will cut a griffon vulture in half”.
New Zealand power companies say nearly 500 wind turbines are currently operational, with more under construction. If a million birds are being killed by every thousand wind turbines in Spain, it can be estimated then that New Zealand wind turbines may be killing 200,000 to half a million birds annually.
A Wisconsin University study notes that while the turbine blades appear to be moving deceptively slowly, at the tips the speed can reach up to 280km/h. Many birds die from direct collision with turbine blades, as well as other parts of the turbine such as towers or nacelles- the ballast units behind the blades. It isn’t clear why this happens, but the general belief is that the motion smear from the movement of the blades is too fast for the birds to pick up. It has also been suggested that some birds are unable to divide their attention between hunting prey and scanning the horizon, meaning they do not realise they are flying straight towards an obstacle.
Sherri Lange, who was appointed CEO of the North American Platform Against Windpower in 2011, told Investigate, “Certain species such as the Whooping Crane in the USA are bound for extinction as turbines continue to proliferate along major migration corridors. There is so much cover-up and fraud [about] the dead birds and bats that it is hard to fathom in this day and age”.
The debate on the topic is split down the middle. Many believe that the number of birds killed by wind turbines is insignificant compared to those killed by cars and other man-made structures. It is possible, however, that the number is not being correctly represented.
“Searchers (who do the dead bird and bat counts for the developers) are told to bury excess of what certain numbers they are told to recover in their counts,” says Lange. “They are also given scant areas, or lesser populated areas, to search in. Much of what they see and count is left overs, as most has already been scavenged naturally. We can only wonder at the real numbers.”
The biggest issue is that these turbines are putting stress on declining species of bird and bat. Altamont Pass in California is home to wind turbines responsible for killing around 65 golden eagles per year, according to ecologist Shawn Smallwood who has spent a great deal of time working in the area.
One of New Zealand’s native birds at risk from the wind farms is the New Zealand Falcon, our country’s only endemic bird of prey, which is capable of flying at speeds of up to 200km/h. (insert footnote: Gerard Hutching. ‘Birds of prey – New Zealand falcon’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Mar-09
Of the three forms of New Zealand falcon, two are classified as nationally vulnerable and one is classified as endangered. The Falcon has already lost much of its habitat due to human interference. Overseas wind farms often have high mortality rates when it comes to birds of prey, due to the height at which the birds fly and the fact that they often fly along the wind pathways that are ideal for wind turbines. This does not bode well for the New Zealand Falcon.
One recent study in California’s Altamont Pass[i] found the turbines were killing 183% of the local owl population. How, you may ask, can a windfarm kill more owls than exist in the area? What researchers found is a harbinger of what may happen in New Zealand – having killed off local birds of prey, the wind farms effectively lure birds from outside the area who come to fill the void. Wind farms are like black holes where owls go to die. Not good news for moreporks.
The study found turbines kill more birds of prey when the land beneath the blades is grazed by cattle or sheep. The dung, say researchers, attracts insects who in turn attract rodents. The more owls, falcons and hawks knocked out of the sky, the more rodents are left to breed, and the more birds of prey arrive looking for takeaways – only to be chopped up by the blades.
Some solutions have been offered for the protection of our wildlife – for example, painting the blades with bright, contrasting patterns could help birds pick up on them more easily. There has not been much research put into this, however, and the protest has been uttered that the result might be an eyesore on the landscape. When it comes to the death of our native bird species, many of them threatened or even endangered, critics ask the obvious question: is that any excuse?
When it comes to bats, the situation is even grimmer. New Zealand is home to only two native land-based mammals. These are the long-tailed bat and lesser short-tailed bat. Both of these species are under threat, and the lesser short-tailed bat is the last of its family. It’s no wonder, then, that any unnecessary deaths of these two species are something to start worrying about.
Bats are occasionally able to avoid collisions with wind turbines, as they use echolocation to watch out for obstacles. The problem with this is that their sonar range is around 60 metres, and flying at a speed of up to 60km/h gives them mere seconds to react to the sudden appearance of a turbine in their path. With a tip travelling at 280 km/h, the bat’s sonar may have detected a clear space that mere seconds later is filled with cold steel by the time the bat reaches the spot. (insert footnote: Veronika Meduna. ‘Bats – Bats in New Zealand’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Mar-09)
Even if the bats are lucky enough to avoid a collision, the change in air pressure as they pass the turbine can cause barotrauma. This is a condition akin to the bends that scuba divers get if they ascend to the surface too quickly. The sudden drop in air pressure causes internal haemorrhaging in the bats – the capillaries around their lungs explode. This air pressure change is not something that their echolocation can detect, meaning that bats are at high risk of being killed this way when they fly through wind farms.
Bruce Rapley, an independent scientist who is currently completing his PhD in acoustics and health told Investigate “The air pressure variations caused by the flying blades cause the lungs of bats and small birds to implode. They find their lungs ‘explode inwards’ and they die an agonizing death by suffocation”.
The death of bats has a wider effect on the ecosystem than one would assume. Bats are highly important to the agricultural industry, as they prey on insects that would otherwise destroy crops, saving the industry millions of dollars. The decline of these bat species would affect ecosystems all along their migration routes.
A study conducted by forest and wildlife ecology professor David Drake and a former master’s student Steven Grodsky in the US looked into the injuries suffered by bats around wind farms. Not only were there the obvious results of bat collisions with turbine blades, but 75% of the bats inspected had broken bones, most of which were in the wings. Most of the bats had fractures, as well as ruptured organs. A rough 50% of the bats studied were also shown to have middle to inner ear ruptures, and injury that would no doubt disorient the animals. This hints that the estimation of bat deaths from wind turbines is probably incorrect, as disoriented bats would be able to fly away before dying. This means that there will be more dead bats than just the ones found on the ground at wind farms.
It doesn’t stop at direct collisions and barotrauma. The construction of a wind farm can be responsible for the habitat loss of many different species of birds and can interfere with the habitats of bats also.
And, as if the collisions, barotrauma and habitat loss weren’t enough, there’s another thing to be thrown into the mix: wind turbines have been shown to pose a significant threat to human health.
“Wind turbines do, without question, impose a severe impact on animal and human populations that live in close proximity to them,” says Bruce Rapley. “This is beyond question. Evidence from around the world is telling the same story: Wind turbines adversely affect human populations and animals wherever they are placed.”
The reasons for this are numerous, according to Rapley. “The hazards posed by wind turbines fall into several categories: shadow flicker, acoustic output and physical hazard.
“The shadow flickering across vision can potentially, in some cases, cause an epileptic seizure. Circumstances can exist where the flicker frequency can fall into the danger zone. Several turbines in a row can cause this, or large shadows where habitation is close to the source.”
The second threat is something called infrasound or Low Frequency Noise (LFN). Infrasound is sound so low that it is inaudible to the human ear, usually sitting at a frequency between one and 20Hz. It has been shown to affect people even when they can’t hear it, as demonstrated in an experiment conducted in England by Acoustic Scientists from the National Physical Laboratory, Richard Lord and Dan Simmons.
Two concerts were played, identical in every way, except for the fact that the scientists secretly generated infrasound using a large pipe and played it underneath the music during one of the concerts. The audiences were unaware of this, yet after the concert, those present when the infrasound was generated filled out a questionnaire and reported feeling shivers down their spine, sensing a presence, feeling a sensation of pressure and so on.
It has been suggested that infrasound explains the feeling of a ‘haunting’ – that clinging feeling of doom or fear, or the feeling that something is there. It affects the body psychologically in an odd way, for reasons that are not completely known. Infrasound, however, is emitted from things such as large waves, a tiger’s roar, and the rumble of an earthquake. All of these are things that mean danger, so perhaps our bodies’ reactions to infrasound comes from instinct.
“The sound from wind turbines is not ‘loud’,” says Rapley, “that is, in terms of causing hearing loss through excessive sound pressure levels. No, its effects are far more subtle and sinister. The best answer is that the unique acoustic output from the turbines excites a primitive area of the human (reptilian) brain that stimulates a response from the autonomic nervous system. Simply put, it ‘frightens the bejeezus out of you’. This is because, over the course of evolution, the reptilian hind-brain has developed survival mechanisms to respond to environmental threats. The sounds that these cognitive filters are tuned to are right in the region that wind turbines produce.
“The end result is that the body turns on adrenalin, pumps out cortisol, changes blood flow, dilates the pupils of the eye, makes you sweat, etc. etc. Over a long period of time, this can have devastating effects on the health and well-being of anybody unfortunate enough to be absorbing this toxic, acoustic cocktail.”
Those championing wind farms as the bright new future of electricity generation claim that the LFN emitted by wind turbines is at too small a volume to have any real effect on nearby humans or animals. Doctor Sarah Laurie, the CEO of the Waubra Foundation, which was set up to look deeper into the health effects caused by wind farms or other industrial sites, told Investigate this is untrue. “There is very little evidence from acoustic surveys which are independent of the wind industry, which show exactly what ‘doses’ of infrasound and low frequency noise people are being exposed to. That is why we have been so keen to get acousticians out in the field collecting this sort of data with the full acoustic spectrum.
“Almost all the existing research information relates to acute exposure to infrasound at higher doses, but for very short periods of time like 20 minutes to an hour. People are living with infrasound and low frequency noise from the turbines for 24 /7. We just don’t know what the effects of chronic exposure to this sound energy are, however we can see people getting sicker and sicker to the extent that they then have to leave their homes – and increasingly their doctors are telling them they have to leave their homes in order to regain their health.”
That people’s health is suffering is clear. “Experimental evidence has shown that [LFN] can induce a physiological stress response with increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline being measured,” Laurie says. “We know that long term chronic stress has extremely detrimental effects on the human body, with respect to both physical AND mental health, and we have known this a very long time.”
The danger doesn’t stop there, though. “There is a growing body of work about tissue changes with thickening of collagen for example, called Vibro Acoustic disease, which I believe in the longer term will be a huge health problem in neighbours of wind turbines and other sources of infrasound and low frequency noise and vibration.
“There is emerging research evidence (not yet published) that these frequencies below 200 Hz are directly disrupting people’s sleep, and it is the cumulative chronic sleep deprivation which we believe is the biggest single problem.”
What’s even more concerning is that evidence suggests the damage from LFN could be permanent.
“I know a number of people who have new Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of their experiences living near wind turbines for example, but there are other conditions which do not completely resolve when they move away from the turbines,” says Laurie. “Certainly, death from a Takotsubo heart attack [caused by stress] would also suggest permanent damage, but of course this is difficult to prove if the doctors are ignorant of the connection between sound energy and adrenaline surges and if the acoustic dose at the time is not being measured.”
So how is it that the public remains unaware of the shocking side effects – both physiologically and environmentally – of wind farms?
“World-wide, we have a debacle,” says Sherri Lange. “This is the worst fraud the modern world has seen. Developers are getting massively rich and the general public is getting energy poverty in return, and job losses, and massive environmental degradation.”
The only solution to the damaging health effects of wind farms on the human population is to “increase the buffer distances between humans, animals and the emitters of this sound energy,” according to Dr Laurie.
As for the decline on our native bird and bat species, wind farms must be properly sited to cause minimal harm and disruption. The Department of Conservation is calling for “a minimum of three years detailed investigation [to] be carried out to determine which birds species use this site, and how and when they use this site,” in a review called Impacts of wind farms on birds. The question is: does greed outweigh the desire for a truly eco-friendly future?
“Greed and the misconception of the ‘Green Dream’ is what fuels the turbines’ continual proliferation,” sighs Bruce Rapley. “The general public would rather pay lip-service to a green way of life rather than actually doing something about it. In this way, most people are happy to be passive bystanders, ‘supporters’ of the green dream – the ethic of keeping this planet clean and safe. What they actually do is engage in what psychologists refer to as ‘displacement activity’, deluding themselves into thinking that they are doing their bit. By voting for wind turbines, they think they are doing their bit for the planet. What they are actually doing is facilitating the mass rape of the population’s finances by large corporates, at the expense of wildlife, amenity and human habitation.”
There’s one final irony. New studies show wind farms are upsetting natural wind patterns and making the climate warmer. Normally the ground naturally cools at night as still, cold air settles. But an American research team in 2012 found the massive turbines churn the atmosphere, mixing warmer air during the night and raising temperatures. How much?
“Satellite data over a large area in Texas, that is now covered by four of the world’s largest wind farms, found that over a decade the local temperature went up by almost 1C as more turbines are built,” reported Britain’s Telegraph newspaper of the findings.
That’s climate change at a rate ten times faster than alleged global warming caused by CO2.
So are wind farms really the answer to our energy needs, or just another example of “greenwashing” offered to us by global multinationals trying to cash in on public panic about the climate? The answer to that question, as Bob Dylan once said, is blowing in the wind…