When South Texas fishing guide Walt Kittelberger founded the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation in the 1990s, it was to fight would-be developers on South Padre Island. Then he and his group took on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over dredging.

Industrial wasteland? Critics contend that wind farms, like this one off the coast of Denmark, are environmental disasters.

Advocates consider them a beautiful site compared with the ravages induced by climate change.
Sandia National Laboratories © EC/G. Boulougouris Industrial wasteland? Critics contend that wind farms, like this one off the coast of Denmark, are environmental disasters. Advocates consider them a beautiful site compared with the ravages induced by climate change.

Now, Kittelberger and his fellow advocates have a new foe: two wind-power farms that Kittelberger says could forever alter the shores of Laguna Madre, a shallow lagoon along 100 miles of South Texas coast known for its fishing and birding. "It would change a pristine rural environment into an industrial zone," he predicts.

Coastal Alternatives
Coastal residents from California to Florida are accustomed to oil drillers seeking purchase off their shores. Thanks to rising energy prices and the new emphasis on domestic energy independence, residents now face an expanding list of other energy producers eyeing beaches or local waters. Wind-farm companies may be the best known, thanks to the pitched battle over the 130-turbine Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound. But other coastal energy projects in the offing include huge liquefied natural gas terminals, intended to process natural gas imported on international cargo ships, and wave energy farms, which use turbines to harvest energy from waves and currents.

Some, especially in longtime energy states such as Texas and Louisiana, welcome the new producers as sources of jobs and revenues. But others oppose local coastal energy projects on environmental, aesthetic, or safety grounds.

With members on both sides, the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association, a national coastal protection group, has not endorsed or opposed any one energy project or industry. But coastal energy production "is becoming more and more of an issue for us," says Harry Simmons, president.

Babcock & Brown and PPM Energy are pursuing two wind farms in South Texas' sparsely populated Kennedy County that together would contain hundreds of 400-foot tall wind turbines. With the best energy-producing winds in the country's interior, the project would be one of only a handful of land-based coastal farms nationwide, says Laurie Jodziewicz, a policy manager with the American Wind Energy Association. But several large offshore wind farms have been proposed, including Cape Wind in Massachusetts, and at least one each off the New York and Delaware coasts.

Energy Demands

The population density on the coast is a double-edged sword for wind-energy producers: while it may mean opposition from local residents, the higher population increases the demand for electricity, says Jodziewicz. "People are located near the coast, so you don't have to move the power as far," she says. "Bigger transmission lines can be more expensive."

Wind-farm opponents have labeled them "avian Cuisinarts," saying local and migrating birds strike and are killed by their rotating turbines. For offshore farms, concerns range from marred beachfront views to encroachments on fishing grounds. For onshore ones, opponents complain that road building carves up rural lands. That and the threat to birds migrating north across the Gulf are both concerns for Kittelberger, who has joined other advocates in filing two lawsuits over the Texas farms. "For us the single biggest thing is the enormity of their footprint," he says.

Jodziewicz responds that high bird fatalities seen with the earliest wind farms have fallen off in newer, better-placed ones. And the companies plan to take measures to limit the danger to migrating birds, she says. As for onshore development, the turbines typically require only small gravel roads and may even increase shoreline access for recreational fishers, she notes.

Similar debates are only becoming more common on the coast, and not just over wind farms. Dozens of liquefied natural gas terminals have been proposed along the Gulf and East Coast, and fishermen have already raised concerns about large-scale wave energy farms. "What I've learned," says Kittelberger, "is to not underestimate them. They are coming."

This article orginally appeared in Coastal Contractor magazine and on Coastal Contractor Online.