Bat conservationists tilt at windmills

Wildlife conservationists are urging electricity companies planning to install wind turbines in Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac to erect windmills that will have little or no impact on bat and bird populations.

They want CUC and Cayman Brac Power and Light, which have both taken preliminary steps to introduce wind-generated electricity to the islands, to carry out environment impact studies and follow-up monitoring to gauge how the turbines are affecting wildlife.

Ed Arnett, project coordinator of the US-based Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, said that while the effects of windmills on wildlife in the US and Europe had been looked at, there was little scientific evidence on the impact of wind turbines on small islands.

‘There is almost no information on what might happen. It could be pretty devastating but on the flip side, it might have no impact at all. We just don’t know,’ he said. ‘There is data about land-based areas in North America, a little bit in Europe, but nothing has been gathered in island situations.’

He said his organisation would be interested in assessing the impact in Cayman if the windmills were erected.

Last week, CUC invited expressions of interest from windpower generation companies to install wind turbines to create 10 megaWatts of electricity in response to escalating fuel prices that are driving electricity costs up.

Meanwhile, Cayman Brac Power and Light hopes to begin erecting wind turbines on The Bluff from next year. General manager Jonathan Tibbetts said the company is awaiting its partner in the venture to apply for a licence from the Electricity Regulatory Authority before plans can be finalised.

‘Barring any hiccups with licensing and paperwork, we plan within 12 months to have something on the ground,’ he said.

The Brac project will most likely involve installing up to 10 eggbeater-style windmills called Darrieus wind turbines, which Mr. Tibbetts said had a less detrimental effect on wildlife because they were quieter and the vertical blades attached to the base and top of the towers made it more visible to birds and bats.

Mr. Merlin Tuttle of Bat Conservation International, one of the organisations which formed the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative – an alliance of US state and federal agencies, private industry, universities and NGOs interested minimizing risks to bats – visited Cayman earlier this year and met with Brac Power and Light officials.

He said he had found no scientific data to back up the claims that Darrieus windmills were less harmful to birds and bats than traditional rotary blade turbines.

‘All turbine companies make extravagant claims about not doing any harm to wildlife and many of those extravagant claims cannot be backed up by science and are later proven to be false,’ he said, adding that at that point, it was difficult to remove the turbines.

‘We are not opposed to wind power development. We just want it to proceed responsibly relative to wildlife safety. If the proposed eggbeater turbines actually prove to be wildlife-safe in the Caymans, we’d be exceptionally interested in documenting that and publicising the success as a model for future production,’ Dr. Tuttle said.

Assessing the impact of windmills on wildlife can be difficult without regular monitoring of the site. Even then, scavengers remove or eat carcasses of animals and birds killed by the blades, leaving no evidence behind that a creature has been killed.

Mr. Tuttle said any permit allowing for windmills should stipulate that they be monitored for at least six months following installation and longer if dead birds, bats or animals are found.

According to Bat Conservation International, wind turbines are under development that report no wildlife mortality, and some of their unique designs appear unlikely to pose threats to either birds or bats.

Lois Blumenthal, director of bat conservation for the National Trust, said: ‘There are new designs and interesting innovations becoming available that protect wildlife and save money. Salesmen from wind power companies do not always have the latest information. The new options can be explored before purchasing any older designs.’