Out here is where Weld County got its name, a vast stretch of brush, blowing dirt and ridges that break up the ocean of blue sky.
There is little else out here, eight miles east of Grover, but a few hardy creatures, an occasional person and a whole lot of wind. It blows here virtually all the time, and the wind is strong, the strongest out of 10 sites researched by the federal government for wind farms.
Now something else catches your eye on the horizon, and as you edge closer to the Clear Creek Wind Farm, you’ll see white turbines with three huge helicopter-like blades dotted all over the landscape.
Plans for those blades raised the concerns of biologists who aren’t fooled by the appearance of wasteland in northeastern Weld and know how important the habitat is to raptors and the occasional ground bird. There was good reason for their concerns: When the first experimental wind farm was erected years ago in California, hundreds, even thousands, of raptors were wiped out by the blades. And the area Cedar Creek creators chose was prime raptor habitat.
Times, however, have changed. Officials with the Cedar Creek Wind Energy have toured the area dozens of times, and not just because they believe the area is beautiful.
“We consider ourselves an environmental company” said Kevin Davis, an official with BP America, an energy company that owns part of the project. “We’re a wind farm. So we wanted to do whatever we could.”
As the wind farm nears the beginning of its operation, probably sometime in October, officials believe the mistakes made at that first California wind farm won’t be made on their site.
“What do you do with all the dead birds?” an observer said Tuesday on a tour put on by Cedar Creek for Weld County officials Tuesday.
“What dead birds?” answered Troy Ryan, a manager who put on the bus tour.
Cedar Creek officials soothed concerns about the raptors by moving some turbines away from a few areas that looked like prime raptor habitat. They even drove around with biologists from the Colorado Division of Wildlife to examine every spot of the 275 planned turbines to be erected and moved them when the biologists raised red flags.
Those ridges and bluffs attract raptors, but they also make the place a good location for the wind farm. The ridges compress the air, making the wind faster and adding even more power to an already breezy area. It’s the perfect spot for a wind farm, officials said, also because transmission lines already are available.
Davis and others spent hundreds of hours with biologists to minimize the impact and will also spend millions on studies to assess the impact on animals such as the Swift Fox, grouse and other animals in addition to the raptors.
“There’s still not enough data to really know what the potential impacts are on some species,” Davis said.
The initial wind farm in California, the one that killed all the birds, looks completely different than the modern design at Cedar Creek, Davis said.
The towers were open, more like windmills that practically invited raptors to nest in them. The turbines resembled fans, with small blades that moved fast and were almost impossible to see, so the birds would fly right into them. And they were stuck close together, essentially making it a wall of fast blades stuck right in the migratory path of raptors and condors.
But the designs that helped save raptors also were better for the wind industry, Davis said. The longer, wider blades that made it easy for raptors to avoid them also produce more power. The turbines are sturdier because of the enclosed steel structures that make it almost impossible for raptors to fly into them. And by spreading out the turbines, they were more efficient.
“We learned a lot from that first farm,” Davis said. “We won’t make the same mistakes.”
BY THE NUMBERS:
60 or 80
Height in yards of the turbine towers
Length, in feet, of the blades on most of the turbines.
Turbines erected on the wind farm
Total amount of turbines that will be erected on the site
Investment by the various companies into Weld County for the wind farm
Homes that could be powered by the energy produced by the wind farm every year in its full capacity.
Acres of land leased by the project in the area
By Dan England
22 August 2007
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