A recent article about a potential tidal electricity project in Willapa Bay caught my eye for several reasons. First, it's good that entrepreneurial types are looking at innovative ideas for augmenting our power supply. It's nice that it's in our own backyard because sometimes blackouts are caused by failures in the transmission system, not an inadequate supply of power. An example in reverse is the town of Tehachapi, Calif., which enjoys nearly free electricity. Tehachapi is the home of a very large wind farm that creates more electricity than the supporting transmission lines can transport out of the area. There's so much surplus that can't be "shipped," it may as well be used locally - for free.
However, there was one aspect of the tidal electricity article that evoked a wry chuckle: "And like wind power, this new technology has raised some concerns. For example, earlier wind turbine designs resulted in numerous bird deaths ...but those early wind turbine designs have been modified, reducing the risks for birds."
My chuckle didn't result from cynicism about wind turbine design alterations, but about the irony of the outcry about potential bird deaths due to wind turbines. As a fairly serious bird-watcher, living with a husband who is a very serious "lister" as they say in the birding world, I'm aware of the data about human caused bird fatalities. There are far more bird deaths from predation by house cats, birds being hit by motor vehicles, and bird collisions with house windows and skyscrapers - especially fully-lit ones at night - than with wind generators. In fact, I think there are times when bird deaths are used as a ploy to cover the "not in my backyard" syndrome.
Research on bird deaths from collisions with windows "suggests that somewhere between 100 million and one billion birds die each year in the U.S. as a result of striking windows," according to an article in the August 2005, Environmental Building News. "Second only to habitat loss, collision with windows is now considered the largest human cause of bird mortality," according to Daniel Klem Jr., Ph.D., "beating out hunting, cat predation, pesticide exposure and communication-tower collisions." Klem is a biology professor at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania and apparently the world's foremost expert on the phenomenon of birds colliding with buildings.
Because many birds use stars to navigate at night, illuminated skyscrapers attract migrating birds that crash into them at full speed. In one instance, according to the article, "building staff at an illuminated skyscraper have reported filling a 55-gallon barrel with dead birds in the morning," and I assume that means many mornings if not every morning. Chicago's McCormick Place convention center found that simply keeping lights off at night resulted in 80 percent fewer bird fatalities. Daytime glass confuses birds with reflections of nearby trees and thickets and building designers have been developing screening that obscures the glass while allowing occupants to see out. Recognizing the problem has led to efforts to alleviate it.
The reason we don't see a raft of dead birds littering sidewalks around tall buildings is that maintenance staff clean the sidewalks each morning. We don't see very many dead birds around our homes either because they usually fall into shrubbery or housecats and other predators pounce on them.
There's a parallel between the concern regarding bird deaths with wind power and the concern regarding fish health with tidal power: In both instances, critics ignore much greater negative impacts from existing practices and technologies.
If you're really worried about bird or fish health, protect habitat. For salmon, enforce larger buffer zones around streams, even those relatively tiny trickles that surprisingly harbor salmon spawning beds. Reduce or eliminate clear cutting that causes or exacerbates landslides and siltation in salmon-bearing streams, especially on steep slopes. (I've never forgotten Weyerhaeuser's own report that within all their acreage in the Willapa Hills, there were less than a dozen streams that had the potential for salmon spawning; vast acreages of clearcutting plus road building without adequate culverts were the unfortunate practices involved.) Then, of course, there are dams big and small that block salmon smolt passage to the ocean - dams that are clutched to the breasts of those who can't think beyond today's familiar old technologies and their current bottom line.
I'm not suggesting tidal power should go unscrutinized - we can learn from past mistakes - but it's time to "think outside the box." It's also time to stop looking for the mote in the eye of new technology and deal with the beam in the old.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who reads a wide (and sometimes obscure) array of publications.