Modern-day La Mancha

Are environmentalists re-enacting Don Quixote's crusade against windmills -- while ignoring the real monster of climate change?

  • Wind turbines outside McFadden, Wyoming, near Rawlins, where another 1,000 turbines -- and 300 miles of roads -- could go in.

    Jordan Edgcomb

Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty 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, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them ... for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless."

Miguel de Cervantes wrote these words in the early 1600s, but change one or two and the passage sounds a bit like the rhetoric echoing through the sagebrush-clad West these days. To reach the ultimate goal of wind producing 20 percent of the energy used in this country by 2030, tens of thousands of 200-foot-high turbines must be installed nationwide, with many of them on gusty public land in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. And that has sparked a fight that looks a lot like the one that has been waged over natural gas in the past couple decades.

Only this time, the issues and choices are more nuanced, and the battle lines are being drawn in unexpected, sometimes baffling places. Some of those who fought against the onslaught of drilling -- while urging more use of renewables -- now find themselves tilting at wind turbines. Meanwhile, some of fossil fuel’s biggest boosters say they are cautious about or even opposed to wind power because of its environmental impacts. It’s beginning to feel a bit like a surreal 17th century novel.

The impacts, and the fight, are being felt most acutely in Wyoming. That state, which has largely embraced its role as the nation’s energy colony with its vast stores of coal, gas and uranium, is a target for some of the biggest proposed 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 one really big coal 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 through the skyline.

That’s got Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal -- 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 development 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," wrote Freudenthal. "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 wrote.

At this point, no one really knows how turbines will affect the grouse. A National Academies of Sciences report in 2007 found that wind farms generally kill far fewer birds than previously believed. (Housecats 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 grouse predators, such as raptors. (On the other hand, older wind turbines in California have been slicing up raptors at a rate of up to 1 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. The state’s opinion on wind power is likely to be trumped by the feds on public land, and by counties on private land. And a new decision on listing the sage grouse is expected to come down from the Interior Department this summer, long before the new 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 was at war with were nothing but harmless windmills, his righteous war a hallucination. For those in wind country, though, we’re still in the middle of the story. And whether it’s the windmills we must slay, or whether we must use the windmills to slay the bigger giant -- climate change -- remains to be seen.

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