Pa. wind energy: Real or hot air?
By Ad Crable
Lancaster, Pa. – Wind power may still be the darling of many
alternative-energy advocates. But concerns that wind farms kill
migratory birds and fragment the last of Pennsylvania’s unbroken
forest ridges is causing some to jump off the bandwagon.
Erecting up to 400-foot-high turbines on state forestland is a
possibility. So is development on some game lands, though the
Pennsylvania Game Commission has declared wind turbines an
In the beginning, wind power seemed like the perfect poster
child for the alternative-energy crusade. It was an earth-friendly
means of loosening the stranglehold of foreign oil.
Unlike its bedrock predecessor in Pennsylvania – coal – wind
turbines promised cheap energy without scarring the environment. No
acid-mine drainage, no strip mines, no soot, no global-warming
gases, no siphoning of water, no clearcutting of forests.
Heck, they hardly make any noise. And when their work is done,
you can simply disassemble the windmills, turning the mountaintops
back to trees.
Already, with seven wind farms churning the air on ridgetops and
wind-swept plateaus, and four more scheduled to begin turning in
the wind this year, Pennsylvania is the top wind-energy producer
east of the Mississippi.
But that’s just a breeze compared to the hurricane of turbines
Gov. Ed Rendell, utilities mandated to find alternative-energy
power sources and wind-energy manufacturers hope to see adorning
the state’s high points.
They would like to see wind farm output 16 times higher within
the next 15 years – enough to power almost 85,000 homes. According
to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, there is
enough wind-energy potential to power almost 5 million homes.
And, indeed, as many as 60 more wind farms are being explored,
including a 10,000-acre proposal on Shaffer Mountain in Somerset
County calling for 30 turbines, each 404 feet all.
The City of Harrisburg is inviting wind-energy developers to
consider land it owns on top of Peters Mountain, north of the city,
near the Appalachian Trail and the Stony Creek Wilderness.
Rendell has already enticed Spain’s Iberdrola, the world’s
leading developer of wind farms, and Gamesa Energy, also of Spain,
a leading wind farm developer and turbine blade manufacturer, to
locate their U.S. beachheads in eastern Pennsylvania.
A vastly expanded wind energy field is a linchpin in the
governor’s proposed $850 million Energy Independence Fund.
Though the wind farms, to date, have been on private lands, the
push for wind also has put pressure on public lands.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is
exploring whether to allow wind turbines on about 38,000 acres of
what it considers non-sensitive state forestland on Appalachian
ridges in the south and southcentral parts of the state. Wind farms
would not be allowed in state parks or the 12 northcentral counties
in the “Pennsylvania Wilds” region being developed for
The Legislature and the governor would have to give DCNR the
authority to allow wind farms. DCNR expects to decide before the
end of the year if it will seek that authority.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has deemed wind power a
“noncompatible use” for its 1.4 million acres of
hunter-purchased game lands, but has left the door slightly open if
a developer can prove a better site can’t be found and replacement
land is made.
But as with ethanol, another alternative energy out of the gate
with breakneck speed, daunting questions are emerging about wind
energy and the bandwagon is losing some riders.
Wind projects around the state, largely unregulated by state
environmental laws, are finding themselves hindered by lawsuits and
Among the concerns now being voiced by some scientists and
environmental groups about wind farms in Pennsylvania:
– The number of ridge-riding migratory birds, especially bats
and golden eagles, drawn to and killed by turbine blades.
Pennsylvania’s Allegheny and Appalachian ridges are among the
most heavily used migration routes on the Atlantic Coast.
Scientists say studies just don’t exist yet in Pennsylvania to
determine whether turbines here pose a serious threat to birds.
High plateaus are not of concern.
– The effect on animals, reptiles, amphibians and ground-nesting
birds by fragmenting the state’s remaining unbroken forests with
high-rise windmills and accompanying access roads and power-line
“We’re talking about industrial wind farms with massive
roads,” said Tim Maret, a biologist at Shippensburg University who
has advised the Pennsylvania Game Commis-sion and the Pennsylvania
Biological Survey, a scientist group, on wind farm matters.
“Just carrying up the blades takes a semi truck. To
fragment these large areas is going to have pretty detrimental
— The aesthetics of adorning the state’s most visible land
features and wild areas with tall, dimly lit turbines.
The sacrifices to wildlife and, as one Fayette County resident
puts it, “a psychology of loss stemming from the public’s
traditional attachment to Pennsylvania’s open areas,” may not be
worth the relatively small reduction in global-warming carbon
emissions, some say.
Maret estimates it would take 635 wind turbines on 80 miles of
ridgetops to get a mere 1 percent reduction in global-warming
carbon emissions from Pennsylvania’s current output.
The ensuing debate is causing an internal soul-searching among
environmental groups, many of which had initially embraced the
technology, and has even pitted some environmentalists against each
For example, recently the Wind Truth Coalition, a newly formed
umbrella of groups pushing for tougher siting regulations for wind
farms, met in the Capitol Building to protest Rendell’s gung-ho
wind energy charge.
But PennFuture, one of the state’s largest environmental groups,
chided the groups, calling them “well-meaning but totally
“There is no perfect form of energy, but wind power
comes closest to being perfect,” said PennFuture President John
Hangar. “We cannot let our need for clean and affordable
energy be blocked by a search for a mythical perfect