The Pennsylvania Biological Survey has gone to bat for the bats in a swirling policy debate over whether commercial wind power development should be permitted in state forests.
The debate pits advocates of wind power as an alternative energy source against those who fear that windmills are harmful to bats and birds.
The Biological Survey last week objected to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ planned adoption of voluntary guidelines for new commercial windmill development now being considered for the first time in publicly owned forests.
The organization said the guidelines – originally developed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to guide wind development on private land – are not based on the best science, don’t include siting guidelines and do nothing to mitigate the harmful impacts of commercial wind turbines on bats.
“To continue to promote and use such a protocol would be to put the interest of the wind industry before the interest of the Commonwealth,” Michael Gannon, chairman of the Biological Survey’s Wind Energy and Bats Subcommittee, said in a letter to DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis last week.
The Biological Survey is the official scientific advisory committee to the Game Commission but wasn’t consulted in developing the voluntary guidelines, Dr. Gannon said, although wind energy companies were.
Chris Novak, a DCNR spokeswoman, said the agency is planning to adopt the Game Commission protocol, but won’t decide until fall if commercial wind power projects will be allowed in state forests. If Mr. DiBerardinis decides to allow wind power development, the state Legislature would have to approve that new use for state forest land.
“The secretary said he didn’t think the state can be serious about addressing climate change without considering wind power development on our own land,” Ms. Novak said. “Screening to protect natural resources and wildlife is appropriate, but looking at alternative energy sources is also appropriate due to the threat climate change poses to the state forests.
“We’re not committed to wind development, but we are committed to determining if it is appropriate.”
Ms. Novak said the department has determined that commercial wind power development could take place on about 2 percent, or 37,753 acres, of state forest land, all on the Appalachian ridge tops in the south and south central part of the state. No wind development would be allowed on state forest land in the northern tier counties, a region being promoted for tourism as “Pennsylvania Wilds.”
The state also will not locate commercial wind turbines in state parks, although small noncommercial wind turbines already provide a limited amount of power within six state parks. And although the Game Commission produced the voluntary wind development protocol the DCNR wants to adopt, the commission will not allow wind development on its state game lands, deeming it an incompatible land use.
Wind energy is the fastest-growing energy technology in the state and nation, and a key component in the Rendell administration’s widely promoted plans to expand alternative energy use in the state.
Pennsylvania is already the leading producer of wind energy east of the Mississippi River, generating 153 megawatts, enough to power 70,000 homes. The administration’s goal is to boost wind power production to more than 3,000 megawatts, a twentyfold increase, over the next 15 years.
Such a massive expansion of wind turbines along the state’s highest and windiest ridges has the potential to fatally impact bats and birds, according to the Biological Survey. In 2004, for example, hundreds of migratory birds and up to 4,000 bats were killed by the whirling blades of 44 turbines in the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center on Backbone Mountain in West Virginia. Heavy bat mortality also occurred at the 20-turbine wind farm in Meyersdale, Somerset County, which also came online in 2004.
After the 2004 deaths on Backbone Mountain, West Virginia started a state-level review and permitting program for all wind power development proposals. It takes into account impacts on wildlife, but there’s no such program in Pennsylvania, according to Dr. Gannon.
According to the Biological Survey review of the Game Commission guidelines, they “will not help avoid or effectively mitigate the harmful impacts to our natural heritage from the pending development of industrial wind energy in Pennsylvania or even serve to adequately monitor the effects such development has on wildlife.”
An internal Biological Survey report in June said the biggest flaw in the Game Commission’s voluntary guidelines allows wind industry companies to block public access to research information on bird or bat mortality caused by a wind turbine operation if it is deemed by the company “not to be in their best interest” to make it public. It also said the guidelines for wildlife research and mitigation to minimize fatalities are “very constrained and exceedingly weak,” and criticized the Game Commission for “setting the bar low” to get wind industry cooperation.
“The scientific standards are not there,” said Dr. Gannon, a biology professor at Penn State University and research associate at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “We’re not opposed to wind energy. All we’re asking is that it be regulated like any other industry.”
John Quigley, DCNR’s director of legislation and strategic initiatives, said the Game Commission guidelines are a good starting point and, if necessary, can be adjusted to meet the needs of those who want wind power development on state lands. He added that any wind development proposals also would go through an environmental review process, similar to that now applied to oil and gas leases.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about wind and wildlife interactions and we’ve developed a strategic research agenda so we can get better information,” Mr. Quigley said. “Bats are high on that agenda. We want to get to the point that we know what is needed to enhance [their] protections.”
By Don Hopey
21 August 2007
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