Biologist Miguel Canals gazed over the majestic cliffs at Guayanilla Bay with a child’s delight, pointing out trees hundreds of years old and rare birds whose songs only resonate in this corner of Puerto Rico.
Landowner Víctor González looks at that same scenic shoreline, feels the gusts of coastal wind and envisions the answer to a global crisis: renewable energy.
Where Canals, manager of the nearby Guánica State Forest, and other local environmentalists want to extend a nature reserve, González wants to build a $100 million windmill farm with the potential to produce 50 megawatts and light 22,000 homes.
On this picturesque bluff in the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico beside Guánica, a tropical dry forest designated as a biosphere reserve, green is colliding with green.
”That forest has been there for thousands of years, untouched,” said Canals, who lives within the forest grounds. “Can you imagine putting windmills there?”
No one argues that Puerto Rico – saddled with one of the highest electricity rates in the United States – needs new sources of energy. But González’s proposal to build 25 turbines, each 450 feet high with blades 120 feet long, would snatch a piece of habitat used by the Puerto Rican nightjar, an endangered bird endemic to Puerto Rico.
There are at most just 2,000 nightjars left, and bird lovers are unwilling to sacrifice part of the birds’ precious habitat in the name of combating global warming. The project would also place the turbines in the paths of the migrating brown pelican and the roseate tern, birds considered at risk of extinction in this part of the world.
After five years of environmental studies and fact-finding hearings, González’s Windmar Renewable Energy project has served only to underscore the challenges governments face in trying to find new sources of power. As pressure mounts to find emissions-free options to oil- and gas-fueled power plants, conservationists are asking: When is the environmental price too high?
Windmill projects from California to Cape Cod are confronting similar opposition. As thousands of birds die each year flying into windmills around the country, more and more preservationists are objecting to wind farms as bird-killing eyesores.
In California, a group of organizations sued owners of one of the nation’s first and most deadly windmill projects, Altamont Pass, to force the owners to curb bird deaths. But industry experts say that while Altamont Pass’ old-fashioned wide blades made birds easy prey, many more birds die each year from flying into windows.
Even as more than a dozen states pass laws requiring that some of their future energy come from renewable sources, only 1 percent of U.S. power comes from wind. A report last May by the National Academies of Science said that number could jump to 7 percent – but first scientists should study the threat to birds and bats.
”We are not against renewable energy. We’re in favor,” said Andrew Dobson, of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds. ‘But this wind farm is sited in the wrong location. You can’t just put up a notice: `Don’t nest in this area next year.’ ”
`DOLLARS AND SENSE’
Puerto Rico’s debate is being played out in Guayanilla Bay, where González, a cement importer, bought property eight years ago in the hopes of capitalizing on the winds.
”My philosophy is very simple: If you can conserve energy and make money, everyone would do it,” González said. “This conservation project makes dollars and sense. If there were 200 projects like mine, we would produce 100 percent of Puerto Rico’s energy.”
González moved to Puerto Rico from Cuba in 1962. He has a degree in forestry from Yale University and spent five years developing an alternative-energy project that local and federal agencies say is a model for other commercial developers.
But his academic credentials and his plans to compensate for environmental damage have failed to stem the swell of opposition to his project. Every environmental group on the island and several bird societies around the world have united to fight it.
Resistance to his project, he said, comes mostly from people who are against private energy enterprises, particularly those owned by people not native to Puerto Rico. González’s contract with the Puerto Rico energy agency calls for him to sell the energy back to the island government for $12 million a year.
”They think I’m a greedy Cuban developer,” he said.
He also suspects local activists simply want his land to be swallowed up by the Guánica Dry Forest, which shares much of his land’s characteristics.
`IN THE WORST PLACE’
The Guánica Dry Forest has 700 plant species, of which 48 are endangered and 16 exist nowhere else. González’s property is virtually identical, except it was never included in the biosphere reserve because it was private property, Canals said.
”The wind farm is a good project in the worst place,” said Canals, who has lived in the reserve since 1983.
”Think about the most pristine habitat in the U.S. and suggest to anyone who knows something about it if they will consider clearing to make space for wind turbines,” said activist Luis Silvestre. “You will get a straight answer. Even from wind-turbine enthusiasts.”
González’s project has been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which worked with his consultants to come up with mitigation plans.
González plans to donate 85 percent of his 725 acres for conservation to the Department of Natural Resources, and said he will plant trees to make up for any dry forest cleared to make room for turbines. The Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the endangered nightjar will lose a small portion of its habitat, but that González would make up for it by planting trees elsewhere.
As for the federally listed pelicans, studies show just one will die every five years as a result of the windmills, and for that, González has agreed to restore mangroves and donate $100,000 for pelican research, said Marelisa Rivera, the endangered species program coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Puerto Rico.
Scientists hired by the environmental groups that oppose the project dismiss the plans drafted by González’s consultants, saying they are based on shoddy science and questionable measurements. They accuse González of blazing ahead by clearing trees before getting permits, which he denies.
The island’s energy agency – part of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources – backs the project. The agency is still waiting for the final environmental impact study.
”I am concerned about the location of the project,” said Department Secretary Javier Vélez Arocho.
“But I also think it’s time we stop talking about global warming and doing nothing about it.”
By Frances Robles
4 October 2007
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