Off the northwest coast of Isla Grande de Chiloé in southern Chile (map), cold-temperate waters influenced by the west wind drift pound against the South American continent. This flow, also known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, causes nutrient-rich water to collide with land, generating a phytoplankton bloom and an abundance of krill.
It's a veritable buffet for the world's largest mammal, the great blue whale. On average, weighing 200 tons and at 100 feet (30 meters) from head to tail, the blue whale is longer than a regulation-sized basketball court. Despite its tremendous size, it feeds almost entirely on the tiny krill, which makes this area off Chiloé a favorite feeding ground every year from January to April.
These favorable marine currents are matched by air currents on land that the energy industry now is seeking to capture. On Mar Brava beach in Cocotué Bay, about 13 miles north of the town of Ancud, plans are under way to build a large-scale wind-energy park. Although the turbines would be on shore, scientists are worried about the potential impact in the sea, especially for the blue whale, an endangered species that saw its numbers in the Southern Hemisphere reduced by 97 percent over the past century.
Environmental groups and citizens in Chile generally support wind power as an environmentally friendly source of electricity, one that's especially important as the South American nation moves aggressively to diversify its energy supply. But more than a dozen organizations here oppose the $235 million wind farm project in Chiloé being built by Ecopower of Santiago. They argue that the construction and operation of the onshore turbines sited on 2,471 acres (1,000 hectares) along the coast potentially could harm not just the blue whale, but dozens of migratory birds, penguins, and several other marine species.
"This project needs to file not a declaration of impacts, but a full environmental impact study," says Barbara Galletti, president of Centro de Conservación Cetacea in Santiago, who is leading the opposition.
Drive for Renewables
The conflict between wind power and whales comes as Chile is working to develop alternative energy sources to meet rising demand. With the economy growing at about 6 percent per year, the country projects its energy demand will double by 2025.
(Related: Chile travel guide)
(Related interactive: Global Personal Energy Meter)
More than 80 percent of electricity is used by industry, and mostly for Chile's world-leading copper mining exports. Currently, hydroelectric dams provide nearly half the nation's energy, with the rest from coal and natural gas imports. The government has set a goal that by the end of this decade, at least 10 percent of Chile's electricity should come from geothermal, wind, solar, and other alternative sources.
(Related: "Going 'All the Way' With Renewable Energy?")
The Ecopower project could contribute to that effort, with 56 turbines providing 112 megawatts of power, triple Chiloé Island's current needs. It would allow the island to export electricity rather than depend on the mainland.
Julio Albarran, general manager of Ecopower, said in an interview that even though the company was not legally obligated to do so, it conducted several studies, mostly focused on the project's potential effects on migratory birds, and made changes aimed at mitigation.
Albarran firmly refuted criticisms that his company plans could pose a threat to the whales or marine life: "Offshore wind power facilities could harm whales, but there exists no study that says land-based wind power affects whales."
But Ecopower was not required to produce a detailed environmental-impact study. Instead the government determined that sufficient information was contained in a shorter-form environmental "declaration" filed by the company, and that the project was not likely to have the "significant" environmental effects that would warrant a full impact study.
Chile's environmental authorities approved the project in August, but before the end of the year the Chilean Supreme Court is likely to decide on a lawsuit from opposing groups.
Scientific research on the impact of wind farms on whales and other marine species is indeed an emerging field. But scientists say there is enough evidence to suggest that wind farms offshore or on the coast can potentially harm whales and other cetaceans. The scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) studied the Chiloé project and recommended last June in its formal report "the urgent development of an environmental impact assessment in this region and to reconsider locating the wind farm towers further away from coastline."
Boats and Noise
High on the list of environmentalists' concerns is the fact that construction of wind farms, whether offshore or along coastlines, can mean an increase in boat traffic. At the proposed wind farm on Cocotué Bay, Ecopower proposes building a port to facilitate the construction and maintenance of its wind turbines. Mark Simmonds, international director of science at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, based in Wiltshire, England, says that raises red flags.
"The construction of a new port on the site of an important blue whale habitat, that on its own is enough reason for experts around the world to speak out," said Simmonds. "Perhaps the biggest problem across the seas at the moment for whales is the sheer amount of boat traffic."
Simmonds say whales use low frequency to communicate with each other, and low-frequency noise from boat traffic interferes with their communication. Worldwide, this traffic has increased several times over in recent decades. Whales are often also struck and killed by boats.
Scientists and policymakers who study construction of wind farms offshore or on coasts share a widespread concern about the loud noise generated by turbine installation. Hydraulic hammers are used to drive piles for the turbine foundations into the sea floor or ground below, generating noise levels as high as 300 decibels or more.
Humans can experience hearing loss at 120 decibels. But scientists say whales and other marine mammals are even more sensitive to sounds, in part because they are hearing-centric. For instance, many marine mammals use echolocation, or biosonar, to help them navigate or find food. Sound underwater also travels faster and farther.
"For cetaceans, sound is absolutely fundamental to their existence," said Jason Gedamke, director of the acoustics program for the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). "Anything that introduces sounds into the ocean needs to be looked at. You would assume that for projects like this that an environmental impact assessment would be done."
Stefan Gsanger, secretary general of the World Wind Energy Association, said the industry recognizes that precautions need to be taken during the construction of wind farms. "There is major noise during construction of a wind turbine, and offshore wind is still a new technology and requires more study. These issues have to be taken very seriously to determine how these effects can be minimized."
(Related: "First U.S. Offshore Wind Power Project Approved")
Studies show nearly half of the 363 blues whales documented to frequent the waters off Chiloé's coast regularly congregate in the vicinity of the proposed wind farm. This exceptionally large concentration of blue whales in northwest Chiloé waters makes it the most important habitat for blue whales in the entire Southern Hemisphere.
About 40 percent of the 56 wind turbines planned by Ecopower are located on wetlands close to the Mar Brava shoreline, some as little as 10 meters from the water. Galletti, who has been studying the blue whale off Chiloé's coast for more than a decade, says blue whales in the area have been known to come 400 meters or less from the coast. The critically endangered southern right whale has been seen as close as 5 meters from shore.
Galletti said these unique conditions increase her concern over the potential for chronic noise effects from the operation of wind turbines here. "Planes over whale-watching areas emit about 110 decibels and are known to drive whales away. There will be 56 wind turbines, which according to the company can each emit as much as 121 decibels," said Galletti, emphasizing that the noise would be continuous over the following 25 years. "We ought to follow the precautionary principle in such a fragile habitat," she said.
While studies to date may not conclusively show whether the continuous operation of wind farms on coasts can affect whale habitat; there are few if any wind farms like the one proposed for Mar Brava.
NOAA's Gedamke says, in the worst case, "it is possible that, over a very long time, a particular habitat could be acoustically swamped and cause abandonment."
"If these animals are aggregating right near where these installations are going in, then impacts from operational noise are more of a concern," he said.
(Related: "Frozen Fish Help Reel in Germany's Wind Power")