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Raptor deaths dirty California’s cleanest energy source

Federal wildlife conservation officials have launched an inquest into the deaths of protected birds at a California wind farm, Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times reports, highlighting a potentially crippling drawback of one of the world’s cleanest power sources.

A total of seven golden eagles are believed to have been killed over the course of two years after colliding with one of 90 windmills at the Pine Tree windmill site. The windmills, operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the Tehachapi Mountains went on-line in 2009 and are spread out among 8,000 acres, generating 120 megawatts of electricity.

While approval of a large off-shore windmill array in Massachusetts was delayed by blue blood patricians fearing it would mar the views from their Martha’s Vineyard vacation compounds, opponents of wind power in California have been focusing their objections on what some refer to as a “raptor holocaust” caused by spinning wind turbines.

According to the piece, the US Fish and Wildlife Service offered scant details, other than to confirm that its work at Pine Tree is part of “an ongoing law enforcement investigation.”

Meanwhile, several hundred miles further north near San Francisco, an estimated 67 golden eagles are killed annually from collisions with the 5,000 windmills at the Altamont Pass Wind Farm. A settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Audubon Society requires the replacement of most of the older turbines with larger units that spin at a slower rate, presenting less of a danger to wildlife.

Golden eagles are, of course, only one species. According to a 2007 story by Jennifer Bogo in Popular Mechanics, the Altamont windmills were killing 4,700 birds a year.

That’s less than one bird per turbine per year. Not much compared to the toll taken by house cats, building windows or motor vehicles.

Everything has consequences. Trying to eliminate or at least reduce the death of raptors is commendable. But compared to the degradation caused by our nation’s main sources of electricity — coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and large-scale hydro — tilting at windmills may be just that.

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