Welcome to the sixth, and final, entry in this series in which I’ve been examining the Great Renewable Energy Land Rush in Yuma County. You can read the previous entries by clicking these links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.
Today, I’ll focus on the looming physical reality of the 550-foot tall wind turbines that are coming our way. Sometime within the next seven years, these machines are going to become a physical reality in Yuma County. And that reality will usher in a profound alteration of a landscape that has, for roughly fifteen thousand years, shaped the human experience of the High Plains.
But let’s start with birds, specifically those who are killed by wind turbines. As has been common during this undertaking, the available data is vague. What I’d really like is to know how many birds, and of which species, are killed per turbine per year. Instead, I’ve only found some wide-ranging numbers of total yearly deaths in the continental US. Those numbers hover somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000.
Now, let’s look at avian death tolls caused by other forms of energy production. This comes from a 2014 article in U.S. News and World Report that seems to have been well-sourced, especially considering how hard it must be to collect this information:
Birds killed in oil fields annually: 500,000 – 1,000,000
Coal: 7.9 million
And, for some added perspective, let’s look at an entirely different source of bird murder: felines. In their lust for blood, it’s estimated that, per year, domestic cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds in the continental US. My farm cats are responsible for roughly half of those deaths. I’m not happy about this. But I’ve also done nothing whatsoever to mitigate it.
Anyway, since wind turbines will be largely replacing coal power, there’s a strong likelihood that they will actually prove a net reduction in bird deaths. Conclusion: while I hope that future designs will make turbines more bird-friendly, I suspect that bird conservationists have far bigger battles to fight than this one. In any case, let us salute those feathered friends who shall be sacrificed to the altars of the electron.
Onward, now, to the matter of humans and horizons.
We get lots of visitors here on the farm. And virtually all of those visitors arrive having known the plains only as the stretch of boredom that forms a barrier between the Rocky Mountains and the invaders from the Midwest. But something wonderful happens after a day or two of thunderclouds, sunsets, and twinkling stars. A calmness sets in, eyes glaze over, and — bammo! — they get it: this landscape is magical.
Part of that magic comes from this landscape’s ability to conceal just how industrialized it has become. When you’re at ground level the view is more or less a sky and a snap-line horizon. But this illusion disappears once you’re on an airplane at cruising altitude. There, the land is revealed as a checkerboard of squares and circles divided by roads, plowed, irrigated, and grazed into something that bears little resemblance to what it was only a century ago.
Starting sometime around 2025, the introduction of massive wind farms will put an exclamatory end to our ground-level illusion of uncluttered nature. And because this land is almost entirely privately-owned, the majority of the population has no say in how it’s used.
If you’re bothered by this, there’s little to be done. We’re facing the worldwide crisis of climate change, the management of which will require either a huge reduction in our energy consumption (good luck) or a massive effort to find cleaner sources for our energy.
We live in a world composed primarily of capitalistic societies. Capitalism is not influenced by the wonders of a horizon line; it’s influenced by the potential for profit. Historically, Yuma County has made most of its money by growing and selling agricultural goods to be consumed by people in faraway places. Now that renewable energy has become profitable, we’re going to add electrons to the list of things we send to people in faraway places. As is usually the case, the lion’s share of the profits will end up in the pockets of those who need them the least: the utility companies, the energy companies, and the landowners (a population that includes my family). If you’re one of the many people who stand to profit from the wind turbines only indirectly (via tax benefits to the county, for instance) it’s perfectly sensible to feel like you’re being forced to give up some of this place’s magic just so someone else can earn a few bucks.
In a recent conversation, a friend summed up this sense of helplessness.
“I know we need to deal with climate change,” he said. “But I don’t want to look at those stupid turbines for the rest of my life.”
In an effort to cheer him up, I offered pedantics.
“Think of wind turbines as inverted oil rigs,” I said. “Rather than extracting energy from the depths of the earth, we’re drawing it from the sky above.” (Another example, by the way, of wind power rendering visible an industry that has otherwise gone largely unseen.)
Then, because I like to be clever, I said, “Wind is the new natural gas!”
Then, because I insist on explaining my quips, I added, “Wind is a gas.”
And then, because I’m really bad at cheering people up, I said, “Anyway, you’ll get used to it.”
“I understand all that,” he said. “It’s just … well, this wasn’t part of the plan.”
Nope, it wasn’t.
Thanks to all the folks who answered all my questions — especially Keith Parks, who, in a 30-minute meeting, cleared up a thousand mysteries.