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Never again

The decision to print this month's cover photo was not taken lightly. It will have a significant impact, both on the world of wind power and elsewhere. The magazine is likely to be seized upon and brandished by wind power's opponents as yet another example of dastardly doings. But there is method in our madness.

Firstly, it is far better that the problem of bird kills at Tarifa is aired in a wind energy magazine rather than in an international bird society journal or other press. Not only is the issue more likely to get a fair and balanced treatment in Windpower Monthly, but publication here also shows an industry aware of the environmental implications of its actions, anxious to face up to its responsibilities and willing to contribute to solving the problem.

Secondly, there is a real problem with bird deaths at Tarifa. It cannot be kept quiet and it will not go away of its own accord. Because several studies in northern Europe have proved that wind turbines have minimal impact on birds, the issue of bird kills in Europe has not loomed large, as it has in America. Had it done so, the fact that Tarifa is on a major bird migration route is unlikely to have been forgotten. If this month's cover achieves nothing else, it will make sure the industry never again forgets about birds.

Thirdly, by and large environmentalists around the world support wind power and in Spain, despite dead birds, they are still supporting it. Their trust in the wind industry is vital. Breaking it would be tantamount to signing wind energy's death warrant. By stepping forward and showing its willingness to highlight -- not hide -- the unfortunate state of affairs in Tarifa, there is a good chance the industry can maintain that trust.

It is not the existence of wind turbines at Tarifa, but the micro-siting of them which is causing the hullabaloo. The local community -- now dealing with dozens of wind farm applications -- would far rather see wind turbines than a concrete tourist jungle, which it has fought against for years. The region is huge and people there fervently hope that room can be found for both turbines and birds. But there's no getting away from the fact that the narrow Gibraltar Straits are a vital crossing point for hundreds of thousands of soaring birds. Because they glide rather than flap their way along, they need to gain height in order to make it to the other coast -- using thermal updrafts on the very ridge lines now dotted with wind turbines. This is a recipe for disaster.

The situation should never have arisen and the industry ought to be kicking itself. The Tarifa problem is very specific. It is site specific and species specific. Yet development of wind turbines everywhere is now going to be called into question. Not all wind turbines kill birds and not all birds are killed by wind turbines. This fact needs spreading far and wide. Wind plants and birds can co-exist peacefully -- provided that their natural habitat is left undisturbed. The powerful Audubon Society in the US agrees. In 1990 it told Windpower Monthly that it was not the number of bird kills, but the protection of their habitat and of rare and endangered species that was the main concern. This is the crux of the problem at Tarifa. By interfering with a vital migratory route, the wind turbines are wreaking havoc with the natural order of raptor life on two continents.

There are parallels between the problems of raptors in the Altamont Pass -- which the Californian wind industry has been working to solve for a number of years -- and the Tarifa controversy. People could argue that the industry, with its experience of bird kills in America, should have known better. But there is a difference. In Altamont Pass the raptors are mainly residents, while at Tarifa those most at risk just pass through the area. These visitors are a new angle on an old problem which the industry has little experience of and failed to spot. For its part, the wind community could again point out that over five million birds are killed in America each year after collisions with bridges, buildings, communications towers, and the like. But this is missing the point. Unlike most other industrial development, wind power takes place in the open countryside which has far more chance of being an important bird habitat.

A pause in development at Tarifa to allow a full impact study to be done seems sensible. It would also be sensible for the wind industry to offer its help. The study could then draw on experience gathered over a decade -- research started in the US as far back as 1984. Never again should the wind industry put itself in the position of appearing environmentally callous.

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