"Just then they came in sight of 30 or 40 windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, '...Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, 30 or 40 hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.'"
Miguel de Cervantes wrote these words in the early 1600s, but the passage sounds a lot like some of the rhetoric echoing through the sagebrush-clad West these days. To reach the ultimate goal of wind producing 20 percent of the electricity used in this country by 2030, tens of thousands of 200-foot-high turbines must be installed nationwide, with many of them slated for gusty public lands in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. That's sparked a fight that looks a lot like the one waged over natural gas in the past couple of decades.
Only this time the battle lines are drawn in unexpected places. Some of those who fought against the onslaught of drilling now find themselves tilting at wind turbines. Meanwhile, some of fossil fuel's biggest boosters say they're cautious about or even opposed to wind power because of its environmental impacts. It's beginning to sound like a surreal 17th century novel.
The argument is loudest in Wyoming. That state embraced its role as the nation's energy colony with its vast stores of coal, gas and uranium, and now it's a target for sprawling wind farms. The Anschutz Corp. wants to put up 1,000 wind turbines on a patchwork of private and public land near Rawlins to generate 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts of juice. That could replace a coal-fired plant and keep some 15 million tons of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other junk out of the air each year. But it would also mean lots of roads—300 miles of them, according to some estimates—and giant turbines slicing the skyline.
That's got Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat who has generally welcomed the energy industry and its jobs to Wyoming, in a quixotic state. In a May letter to the state Senate, he bemoaned the "gold rush" pace of wind speculation and its potential effects on the diminishing sage grouse. "Seemingly every acre...is up for grabs in the interest of 'green, carbon-neutral technologies,' no matter how 'brown' the effects are on the land," Freudenthal said. "It's like taking a short cut to work through a playground full of school children and claiming 'green' as a defense because you were driving a Toyota Prius." He went on to say that traditional industries have voluntarily avoided prime sage grouse habitat, and that they have offset their impacts by bringing gobs of cash to the state. "I cannot speak with the same certainty with regard to wind development," he said.
No one really knows how turbines will affect the grouse. A National Academy of Sciences report in 2007 found that wind farms generally kill far fewer birds than previously believed. Housecats, in fact, are a much bigger threat than windmills.
Nevertheless, the construction of 1,000 turbines in core sage grouse habitat will certainly disturb the birds. And some scientists believe sage grouse instinctively avoid tall structures because they offer possible perches for predators such as raptors. It is also true that older wind turbines in California have been slicing up raptors at a rate of up to one bird per megawatt per year.
Freudenthal and other wind-worriers see this as a multi-tiered threat. If wind farms hurt grouse, then the bird may end up on the endangered species list. That would mean additional regulations on oil and gas and other industries across the West. But the governor's bluster may be as futile as that of Sancho Panza's master. On federal land, the state's opinion on wind power is likely to be trumped by the feds. And a new decision on listing the sage grouse is expected to come down from the Interior Department this summer, long before the wind rush has any impact.
"In last year's nests there are no birds this year," says Don Quixote near the end of his life, and of the story. He speaks not of sage grouse, but of his madness: He has finally realized that the monsters he went to war with were nothing but harmless windmills. For those of us in wind country, though, we're still in the middle of the story. And whether it's the windmills we must battle, or whether we must use the windmills to slay the bigger giant—climate change—remains to be seen.