Out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind to Dave Delaney, general manager of King Ranch.
From this stretch of the King family’s property north of Raymondville, he might not be able to see the nearly 250 large, whirling wind turbines that soon will be built on about 20,000 acres of nearby Kenedy Ranch. But that doesn’t mean their presence won’t affect King Ranch or the birds that migrate through this area, he said.
“We think this coastal habitat is too sensitive for this (wind project),” Delaney said. “It involves thousands of acres, hundreds of miles of roads, huge, turning blades … we feel there should be some public input.”
King Ranch is one of 11 regional and state organizations, including the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation, Frontera Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy, that have united in their opposition to two proposed wind farms in Kenedy County that are scheduled to be up and running by late 2008.
Known as the Coastal Habitat Alliance, these groups differ in their support of wind energy – Delaney, for example, says it doesn’t provide sufficient power to replace fossil fuels; other groups say they’re champions of “green” energy. But they agree on one thing: the Kenedy property is the wrong place to put turbines.
“On this particular site, the infrastructure will have a different impact,” said Elyse Yates, a spokeswoman for the alliance. “The land is different than for other projects, because it’s on coastal marshland … it’s more ecologically diverse than the (Florida) Everglades.
“One of our biggest questions is what will the impact be? Nobody really knows.”
Two companies – PPM Energy, a subsidiary of Spain-based Iberdrola, and Australia-based Babcock & Brown – are planning the wind projects. The two farms together would produce about 388 megawatts of electricity, at least in the first phase of construction, according to an AEP Texas filing with the Public Utility Commission of Texas. AEP is requesting the go-ahead from PUC to construct an electricity transmission line connecting to the wind farms.
The farms would supply enough electricity to power about 90,000 homes, according to figures from the Energy Information Administration.
The companies say that they are trying to minimize the projects’ impact on habitat and birds, and it’s “unfortunate” that the alliance is opposing the projects.
“We think it’s a great project with a great story – we’re offering clean, renewable energy for the state,” said Chris Shugart, project developer for the Babcock & Brown wind farm.
Despite the companies’ reassurances, alliance members say they are concerned about the wind projects’ impact on endangered and threatened bird species in the region, as well as on the coastal habitat. The tall turbines and their fast-spinning blades could lead to substantial bird kills, the groups say. The needed infrastructure – including concrete bases for the towers and roads running throughout the site – will deplete natural habitat, they said.
Wind turbines made today typically have towers from 200 to 260 feet tall, with rotors from 150 to 260 feet in diameter, according to the National Wind Coordinating Committee. At their tips, the blades can turn as fast as 138 to 182 miles per hour.
Bird fatality rates at other wind-turbine sites have varied widely, from less than one bird per turbine at a site in Oregon to 10 per turbine at a site in Tennessee. The average, according to the National Wind Coordinating Committee, is two per turbine per year.
The companies counter that they’ve conducted assessments of the bird populations in the area, and concluded the turbines would cause minimal bird fatalities.
“Since 2004, we’ve been doing migrating bird studies, breeding bird studies,” said Jan Johnson, spokeswoman for PPM Energy.
According to PPM, these studies have shown, for example, that raptors like the aplomado falcon – one of the species of concern to the alliance – fly west of the site and wouldn’t be affected.
Babcock & Brown has come to similar conclusions, Shugart said. Also, the company is planning to construct turbines and the connecting roads so as to minimally disturb wetlands, he said.
“We’ve worked with local environmental agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers on the project, on avoiding the wetlands,” Shugart said.
Most of the land will remain undisturbed, he said.
“It’s not like a sprawling Wal-Mart parking lot,” Shugart said.
However, because the companies have generally funded their own studies, and in some cases haven’t made the results public, alliance members are unconvinced.
“It’s not the same as having people from environmental agencies, qualified biologists, discuss the studies that need to be done,” said David Newstead, president of the Coastal Bend Audubon Society. “It needs to be legitimate, peer-reviewed research … in Texas there are essentially no studies like that.”
Nearby Baffin Bay and the Laguna Madre area sees many species of birds migrating year-round, Newstead said. Shorebirds like the white-faced ibis, osprey, egrets, sandpipers and little blue heron frequent these coastal wetlands, he said.
A recent helicopter flight over the proposed wind-farm sites revealed a chain of wetland ponds, with flocks of shorebirds stopping to drink and rest. Other than a few roads and quail runs for hunting, the land looks close to untouched.
“It’s hard to think (the farms) wouldn’t have some impact on these species,” Newstead said.
Jumping into the fray
Because the projects are being built on privately owned land, no public hearings are required in the construction process. So the alliance has taken its fight to the Public Utility Commission of Texas.
On Oct. 17, the PUC will consider AEP’s request to construct a transmission line to the wind farms, and the alliance has filed for “intervenor” status in that request. If granted, the alliance could ask for an environmental-impact study of the projects, Yates said.
At first, it appeared the environmental groups wouldn’t have a chance to comment – last month, a state administrative judge denied the alliance’s request to intervene. But later in the month, the PUC agreed to consider the groups’ request after all.
“We see that as a really good sign,” Yates said.
The companies say they don’t necessarily object to the alliance having a say in wind-energy projects. However, the arguments against the Kenedy County projects haven’t convinced the entities who have heard them so far, said Johnson of PPM Energy.
“The state administrative judge did not grant standing for them after weighing the arguments,” she said.
The Texas Legislature also hasn’t agreed to impose more regulations on wind energy, as some environmental groups have requested, she said.
Delaney, of King Ranch, acknowledged he is frustrated with the “mad rush” to construct wind farms on the Texas coast and offshore without environmental protections. But constructing a wind farm on this site in particular isn’t a good idea, he said.
“Just because (wind farms) don’t produce any carbon emissions doesn’t mean there aren’t any problems with them,” he said.
By Melissa McEver
7 October 2007
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