ROCK HALL – On a blustery day in 2001, Megan Walkup looked out the window of her office at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge and marveled at how the wind was shaking the edge of the roof.
It was March. Walkup’s calendar featured a picture of an old-fashioned windmill and a bit of inspiration: “A windmill’s true power is only revealed when it faces the wind; a person’s–only when he faces adversity.”
Walkup thinks it was more than a coincidence.
“I just got to thinking, why not harness that wind?” said Walkup, the refuge’s contracting officer.
Since then, she has spearheaded an effort to power the refuge’s office with alternative energy, including a 60-foot-tall tower topped with a turbine to capture that powerful wind.
Now on windy days, Walkup thinks less about the shaking roof and more about all the electricity that is being generated. The windmill, in addition to several solar panels, provides a fair amount of power in the summer and frequently all the power the refuge needs during the windy winter months.
The small Eastern Shore facility is the first national refuge in the Northeast to have an electricity-generating windmill. It took pains to set it up so that it does not pose a threat to birds and bats — the biggest environmental criticism of wind power. That is a particular concern in areas like the refuge, which is designed to protect birds like the southern bald eagle and the tundra swan.
Unlike commercial-scale wind farms, which may have scores of such turbines on top of towers that are hundreds of feet tall, the refuge has just one turbine on a shorter tower. Even though taller turbines generate more power, the refuge kept the tower to 60 feet to reduce the threat to birds.
“We’re kind of sacrificing some of the energy we could be getting because we’re concerned about the wildlife impact,” Walkup said.
The refuge also supplements its power with six solar panels and is looking into other ways to lower its energy requirement.
Staffers keep a circle around the turbine closely mowed to keep rodents and other prey out of the area. Predatory birds often get tunnel vision when they are hunting, but with no potential meals under the turbine they are less likely to be injured.
Staff and volunteers also survey the area under the turbine at least once every 24 hours to make sure no birds have been killed. To make sure the inspectors are doing their jobs, the refuge manager sometimes plants fake dead birds.
Their efforts appear to be working. Since the tower was erected in 2002, only eight birds have been killed and all of them were common starlings.
The refuge’s 70,000 annual visitors often marvel at the turbine, and the staff maintains a display that shows exactly how much power is being generated at any given time.
The turbine, sitting just a few hundred feet from the refuge office, looks like a torpedo with three skinny blades sticking out of it. Not far away, a tree at the edge of the water is home to a bald eagle nest.
The refuge sits on the confluence of the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay in Kent County. The Bay Bridge is in the distance, but visitors can easily spot bald eagles that make their homes on the shore.
“They see the eagles and they see the turbine and they see the connection,” Walkup said.
-30- CNS 12-03-04