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Wind power faces patchwork rules

Long darlings among many environmentalists, the enormous windmills cropping up across the country are themselves subject to very little environmental oversight, according to a national report released Thursday.

“The nation, states, and local areas are uneven in their ways of evaluating the environmental impacts of these projects,” said Paul Risser, an author of the National Academy of Sciences study.

Wind turbines produce none of the pollution that contributes to climate change, a top priority among many environmentalists. But wind turbine projects in Texas have run into opposition from birding groups, who say the giant windmills kill birds, and from some ranchers, who worry that they could hamper hunting and tourism activities.

Although the report found “no evidence of significant impacts on bird populations,” it suggests that policymakers consider aesthetic, cultural, human health and environmental impacts before approving wind power projects.

Only 2.1 percent of Texas’ energy came from wind power last year, according to Dottie Roark, a spokeswoman for the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, the operator of the power grid. But the state’s wind power capacity grew by 38 percent during 2006, largely because of new turbines in West Texas, and Texas leads the nation in wind-powered megawattage.

On the Gulf Coast, where wind developers are leasing land to build hundreds of turbines in the path of migratory bird routes, birders have raised hackles about the projects.

“We have no pre-construction monitoring, no post-construction monitoring” of wind projects by the state, said Winnie Burkett, director of the Houston Audubon Society.

Birders have been in on-and-off talks with wind energy companies for about a year to come up with guidelines for the siting of turbines, Burkett said.

The state environmental commission does not issue permits for turbines, and state law says only that turbines should be built in “suitable land areas.” It does not define suitable.

“There’s only a little oversight,” said Terry Hadley, a spokesman for the state Public Utility Commission.

Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, has sponsored a bill that would require the state environmental commission to review the environmental impacts of wind turbines and determine whether they spoil views or create noise that interferes with the property rights of nearby landowners. The bill, supported by the giant King Ranch, which is upset about turbine proposals on a nearby property, has languished in a House subcommittee.

About 1 percent of energy nationally comes from wind, according to the federally funded National Academy of Sciences report. If that figure increases to 7 percent over the next 15 years, the nation can cut about 4.5 percent of its carbon dioxide production.

Fewer bird fatalities are caused by wind turbines, .003 percent, than cats, said Laurie Jodziewicz, a policy analyst on siting and wildlife issues for the American Wind Energy Association, a lobbying organization for wind developers.

By Asher Price
American-Statesman Staff

statesman.com

4 May 2007