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The Wind Rush

Wind power promoters tout benefits, yet rarely admit to the costs. An accurate accounting is the responsibility of local elected officials who were chosen for their willingness to address not just industry concerns but those of their communities as well. Wind power development must be controlled through local ordinances that protect the quality of life of all citizens. In truth, most of interior Ohio is available for the wind power industry with mile after interminable mile ripe for windmills to go along with the corn and soybeans. If Cleveland wants wind turbines, go for it. There are enough brown fields there to host hundreds. But within this fragile Lake Erie fringe, additional industrial development only undermines a vibrant tourism and recreation industry.

To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified…Theodore Roosevelt


Blue Heron Reserve, OH by Ted Lee Eubanks Wind power promises, and wind pushers promote, but what exactly does wind power deliver? At the end of 2009 wind turbines represented less than 2% of American energy production. The stated goal is to have wind power producing 20% of American energy by 2030. With aggressive subsidies, the wind rush continues to blow. To what end?

Wind power is popular as long as the turbines are installed in someone else's neighborhood, and the government continues to shell out the dough. Land owners love the lease payments, and power pushers enjoy the subsidies and tax benefits. Otherwise, where are the economic benefits for the local communities who will live with these turbines?

A few are employed during construction, and maintenance and monitoring will keep a handful on the payroll. But most of the jobs to be gained from wind power are found on the design, development, and manufacturing side, and few of those functions are located locally. According to BTM Consult America has only one firm in the top ten wind turbine manufacturers, and China is poised to make dramatic gains in the next few years.

Once installed, the turbines themselves are normally owned by outside interests, and the gains from power production (including the subsidies) sift out of the local economy. So where are the wind power jobs? Is there lucre with the green luster? According to Business Insider,

The continuing lack of a long-term policy and market signal allowed total investment in the manufacturing sector to drop compared to 2008, with one-third fewer online, announced and expanded wind power manufacturing facilities in 2009. The result was net job losses in the manufacturing sector, which were compounded by low orders due to high inventory.

In other words,

The underlying problem remains that wind power is far too dependent on taxpayer subsidies. Thus it can't stand on its own feet, yet is growing like mad. That's the definition of a bubble.

Remember our last bubble (think hedge funds and sub-prime mortgages), the one from which America has yet to recover?

Alvar pavement on Kellys Island, OH by Ted Lee Eubanks
What about the environmental benefits? There is no question that wind power delivers positive carbon benefits, and has the potential to ameliorate (even if marginally) global climate shifts. But without wholesale transformations in consumption, alternative energies will do well to simply keep pace with rising energy demands. In the end we may be forced to embrace natural gas and nuclear as our bridge energies as we explore for meaningful ways to reduce consumption. Doubt me? According to a recent article in the New American,

A single nuclear plant delivers the same power over a year as does a 300-square-mile wind farm with 2,200 30-story wind turbines, the difference being that the nuclear plant delivers energy when needed, not just when the wind is blowing.

Purple Beach Pea, Highlands Dunes SP, OH by Ted Lee Eubanks Yet wind turbines also come with negative environmental effects. Some are overstated by opponents, some are ignored by proponents. For example, turbines impact birds and bats, lessening this alternative energy's "green" value. The industry argues that automobiles, cats, and windows kill many more birds that wind turbines, yet I find that argument specious. These impacts are cumulative, and the addition of another threat to birds and bats only enhances their peril. Wind turbines, to date, have diminished none of the existing wildlife threats, and therefore can only be weighed as additive. Organizations such as the American Bird Conservancy are working to reduce impacts from all of these threats, so the notion that wind power is being unfairly criticized or singled out is nonsense.

There is one negative environmental impact, however, that the industry cannot easily dismiss. Nothing drives a power promoter crazier than a discussion about view sheds and aesthetic values. A scenic view is no more easily defined as the term "quality of life." Both are squishy and amorphous, yet both are important factors in where Americans choose to live and travel. Yet consistently I find the wind power industry (the energy sector as a whole, in fact) quick to dismiss any concerns about scenery, recreation, or tourism. The standard response is that "people will get used to it." Research, however, shows this dismissive attitude to run counter to actual data. For example, consider the way that Americans value the Appalachian scenery along the Blueridge Parkway. In a 2002 survey, researchers found:

The significance of this study is that it estimates the economic value that visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway receive from the unpriced amenities of scenic beauty and visibility. In other words, just because people don’t pay for the scenic beauty of this region doesn’t mean that they have no value for it. On the contrary! Our study suggests that respondents value scenic beauty and visibility very highly…Visitors say they will make fewer trips if scenic quality declines on the northern North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our model predicts that a large portion of these visitors will completely stop visiting this section of the Parkway if scenic quality declines.

In a 2009 study of the impacts of wind power development along the Delaware coast, researchers reported the following:

Based on the contingent behavior findings of tourists’ stated beach visitation, we would not advise developers of offshore wind to claim that there will be no negative impact on tourism. Some beachgoers report that they would avoid beaches with visible turbines, as one may anticipate from the general literature and industry perceptions. Considering that the reported avoidance effect diminishes with greater distance from shore, locating offshore wind turbines further out to sea would mitigate this outcome.

According to the Delaware study, offshore wind turbines within 1.5 km of the coast would result in the most significant impacts on visitors. This paper states:

The reported loss of tourism at the closest distance (1.5 km) is substantial, with almost 45% stating they would switch to another Delaware beach or not go to a Delaware beach at all.

Interestingly (and importantly), the study shows a dramatic decrease in displacement as the turbines are moved farther offshore (10 km) and away from the beach. In fact, there is evidence that these turbines themselves might attract tourists. The issue is not wind or no wind power, it would seem. The most important factor is where the turbines are placed.

The Effect of Wind Power Installations on Coastal Tourism by Meredith Blaydes Lilley, Jeremy Firestone and Willett Kempton
Finally, researchers studying the value of scenic views along the Italian coast came to the following conclusions:

Interestingly, scenic views and natural resources display a significant impact on the MWTPs (Marginal Willingness to Pay) of tourists for accomodation, in particular in regions characterized by a relatively small number of natural resources and scenic views, pointing out the importance of keeping the tourist destinations clean and not too crowded.

The Lake Erie coast in Ohio is a textbook example of a region with a small number of natural resources and scenic views. This has not always been so. Pioneers venturing into the Western Territory found a Great Black Swamp extending from the Maumee River east to Sandusky. Beginning in the 1850s settlers began to drain this expansive lakeshore wetland, and within 40 years most of the swamp seeped away through the newly installed drainage tiles. What remains today, nestled among the sprawling cities and industrial plants, are the scraps of nature that fell from the table of that original feast.

The remains of the Great Black Swamp, those scraps, are found along the edge of the western basin of Lake Erie. Like Indiana Dunes and the Beyond the Beach Discovery Trail on Lake Michigan, or the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway, northwest Ohio contains most of what remains of one of America's iconic yet fading landscapes. Although reduced and discontinuous compared to the original swamp, nevertheless a visitor can still become sensually (and literally) immersed in nature here. The Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Magee Marsh, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge, and Maumee Bay State Park are a few examples of the protected lands in the western corner of the state that still preserve this seminal chapter in the American drama.

Glacial grooves, Kellys Island, OH by Ted Lee Eubanks Years ago I worked in this area to help create what is now the Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail National Scenic Byway. From my first days I became infatuated with the Great Lakes in general and Lake Erie in particular. Glaciation, fen, and alvar are not terms I knew growing up on the Gulf of Mexico. Yet along Lake Erie the Pleistocene is yesterday. A short boat ride to Kelly's Island and you will see the scouring effects of a glacier as it ripped back toward the arctic and the alvar pavement that lines the island's edge.

Another Pleistocene relict is the dazzling migration route of birds from, to, and across Lake Erie. Millions of birds return each spring to the Lake Erie shore, stage (rest and feed), and then cross the lake to nest in the northern boreal forests. These masses return in fall, crossing the lake once again as they make their ways south to the tropics. Each postage stamp woodlot (known as beach-ridge woods in Ohio, cheniers in Louisiana, oak mottes in Texas) that dots the lakeshore teems with migrants during spring and fall, offering birds that will ultimately occupy millions of square miles of breeding and wintering forests a brief interlude (and midge feast) during their travels.

Look at this Google Earth image of the Lake Erie coast, with the Black Swamp Bird Observatory situated near the lake in the center. Notice how little green is left. This handful of protected areas is afloat in a sea of farm fields and urban sprawl. These green fragments are all that have been passed down to us, and all that we have left to give to our children and grandchildren.

Coastal Ohio
Wind power promoters are eying these scraps, eager to plant commercial wind farms along this precious Lake Erie coast. Our forefathers ditched, drained, plowed, cut, scraped, stripped, gouged, and peeled this land, and their offspring are eager to find new ways that they can squeeze their nickel from the land. Nature and outdoor recreation are the dominant industries in this area (yes, nature is a business as well as a cause). The tourism that depends on these natural resources pumps hundreds of millions of real dollars into the local economies through employment, small businesses, and taxes. As research shows, improperly placed wind turbines stand to negatively impact tourism in the region. The economic gains from wind power development, when assessed according to impact on local communities such as Port Huron and Sandusky, cannot hope to eclipse the tourism losses. Wind power proponents would like to rob Peter to pay Paul.

Eastern Wood-Pewee grounded along Texas coast by Ted Lee Eubanks The potential for sizable bird kills is real as well. When a late cold front sweeps across Lake Erie, grounding tens of thousands of migrants along the shore, just exactly who is going to take the responsibility to shut down these bird blenders until the winds shift, the skies clear, and the birds can continue across the lake? These migratory bottlenecks are perilous for birds even when the winds and weather are right. With inclement weather, mortality can be catastrophic. Pauline James published a paper in 1951 about a massive migrant kill along the Texas coast. Trans-Gulf migrants were attracted to the lights of a new beach park near Corpus Christi, and at least 10,000 birds perished. Given today's reduced numbers of neotropical migrants, can we afford such a loss when we know they can be avoided?

Avoid we must. Disallowing wind power development near the shore will diminish the risks of wildlife impacts and will protect the vital regional tourism industry. I know; the wind industry will howl. Current subsidies induce power producers to cherry pick the highest wind value landscapes (lake shores, mountain ridges, coastlines). Yet these are often the same areas that residents and tourists cherish for their recreation, ecological, and scenic values. 

Wind power promoters tout benefits, yet rarely admit to the costs. An accurate accounting is the responsibility of local elected officials who were chosen for their willingness to address not just industry concerns but those of their communities as well. Wind power development must be controlled through local ordinances that protect the quality of life of all citizens. In truth, most of interior Ohio is available for the wind power industry with mile after interminable mile ripe for windmills to go along with the corn and soybeans. If Cleveland wants wind turbines, go for it. There are enough brown fields there to host hundreds. But within this fragile Lake Erie fringe, additional industrial development only undermines a vibrant tourism and recreation industry.

Local groups such as the Black Swamp Bird Observatory have asked for a three-year moratorium while an accurate accounting of impacts is made. I say that tourism interests should band together with these groups to demand a halt to further wind power development until their concerns are considered. I suspect that a coastal set back of 10 to 22 km will address most of these concerns (according to the Delaware study, a 22 km setback reduced view shed impacts to less than 10%). The industry will never voluntarily comply; local ordinances are the only way to force the issue. Without action, without a forceful mandate, this last vestige of Ohio's Lake Erie coastal heritage will vanish, leaving no trace other than the haunting names such as Port Clinton, Marblehead, and the Great Black Swamp.

Magee Marsh WMA, OH by Ted Lee Eubanks

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

  • Contact Kim Kaufman at Black Swamp Bird Observatory and ask how you can learn more about this issue and get involved.
  • Let local tourism officials know of your concerns, and your willingness to support them as they face down this challenge.
  • Support those organizations (such as BSBO) who are on the front lines. That's right; write a check. 
  • Sign the petition here that is requesting a three-year moratorium on wind power development in this region until the environmental impacts can be fully assessed.
  • Read Kenn Kaufman's article about Magee Marsh in the Jan 2010 issue of Birding magazine, available as a free PDF download from the American Birding Association.
  • For additional information about wind power and tourism, read the Fermata Flint Hills strategic plan and assessment.
  • For additional information about this region of Ohio, read the Fermata heritage tourism report.
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Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks is president and CEO of Fermata Inc. an Austin-based global leader is sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation. Eubanks and Fermata were responsible for developing the first birding trails, in Texas, in the early 1990s. He has served on the national boards of Audubon and the CLO, and received the first ABA Chan Robbins Award in 2000. Eubanks writes extensively about birds, conservation, and sustainability, and has coauthored two books about birds (The Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast, and Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). To continue his work connecting people to places, birders to birds, Eubanks has formed a new company, Great American Trails, which is using new technologies to attract new constituents to the outdoors.
Ted Lee Eubanks

Latest posts by Ted Lee Eubanks (see all)

  • Ted, thanks very much for bringing this to the ABA blog. We have a serious effort going here to protect a narrow strip of lakeshore in a region that has been called “the warbler capital of the world” for its concentrations of migrants. (This is the same region that I wrote about in the January 2010 issue of Birding, in the article “Magee: Portrait of a Migrant Hotspot.”) If ever there were a conservation issue that birders ought to support, this should be it. I hope all ABA members will read the materials linked in your post and then sign the petition asking for a three-year moratorium on construction of turbines within three miles of the lake shore in northwest Ohio.

  • In South Dakota, it almost seems like the wind industry looks for unploughed, pristine native prairie on which to build.

  • Kenn’s article in Birding (“Magee: Anatomy of a Migrant Hotspot”), referenced above, is available as a free PDF download from the ABA website. Check it out: http://aba.org/birding/v42n1p38.pdf

  • Ted,

    I applaud the thoroughness with which you’ve made a critically important case here. Very well done.

    I join Kenn Kaufman in asking that all our readers here consider singing the online petition linked to in the 4th bullet point at the end of Ted’s post. I signed it on November 22. I hope you’ll do the same.

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