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Critics says California’s new guidelines for reducing impacts to wildlife from wind energy could be a burden to the industry.
In early October, the California Energy Commission (CEC) unanimously approved new guidelines designed to reduce the number of bird and bat deaths from wind turbines. The wind power industry is watching California carefully to see how these new voluntary guidelines will affect wind energy growth. Already, there is a ripple effect across the country, with appointments made recently for a U.S. Fish & Wildlife wind turbine guidelines advisory committee, which includes John Geesman, the CEC’s energy commissioner.
The “California Guidelines for Reducing Impacts to Birds and Bats from Wind Energy Development” were established as recommendations to county and local organizations that review and license wind farms. The CEC worked closely with the California Department of Fish and Game to develop the guidelines, which are meant to protect wildlife from injury and death. At a time when California predicts that 20% of its energy will come from wind power by 2010 and 33% by 2020, concern for the impact on bird and bat wildlife has increased. The guidelines are intended to increase awareness of the impact wind turbines have on local wildlife and provide guidance in how that impact can be reduced.
The guidelines begin with a list of questions for those performing wind farm site assessments. The questions include the following situations:
• Are there endangered, threatened or protected species of bats or birds that habitat near the proposed wind firm site?
• Is it near raptor nests or wintering areas for raptors and other bird life?
• Is it a site where a bird species’ foraging tactics put it at risk for collision?
• Is it an area known for bat roost?
• Are there seasonal or meteorological issues, like dense fog, that could potentially increase the risk of collision?
According to the official document, “the guidelines include recommendations on preliminary screening of proposed wind energy project sites; pre-permitting study design and methods; assessing direct, indirect and cumulative impacts to birds and bats in accordance with state and federal laws; developing avoidance and minimization measures; establishing appropriate compensatory mitigation; and post-construction operations monitoring, analysis and reporting methods.”
The guidelines provide information about what is needed to satisfy the California Environmental Quality Act and address other laws, including state and federal wildlife laws, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the state and federal endangered species acts. They are site-specific in order to address local concerns regarding wind energy and environment. Protocols set up in the guidelines recognize that California’s environmental concerns will differ throughout the state, allowing them to be adapted depending on the type of wildlife, terrain and local data.
Following California’s lead, the Department of the Interior (DOI) is taking steps to revamp its own federal guidelines. Interim guidelines to reduce environmental impact of wind turbines were initially developed in 2003, largely in response to its Endangered Species Act, and a call went out for appointments for an advisory group. This group was officially convened in May 2007 and is expected to spend the next two years developing permanent guidelines.
Currently, the interim guidelines state that any wind energy development on public lands must adhere to federal laws and requirements dealing with endangered or threatened species. Biologists who work with the department have received requests to enforce some sort of guidelines on private land as well.
The federal guidelines are similar to California’s in that they ask for an assessment of the land and develop a ranking system to determine how much of an environmental impact wind turbine construction would have on the property in question. The guidelines suggest that if a site does not already meet the specifications for wind energy development, such as sufficient wind and accessibility to a transmission grid, the site should not be recommended for environmental evaluation. Like California, the federal government would have pre- and post-construction evaluation.
One difference is that the DOI can offer loans through the Farm Bill to rural small wind developers. Anyone accepting such a loan would be required to undergo a National Environmental Policy evaluation.
The CEC stresses its guidelines are voluntary and are designed to help county and city governments strike a balance for the overall environmental good. However, Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association (CWEA), believes the guidelines will become a burden to the development of wind energy.
“The guidelines will slow down the development of wind power,” she says. Although they are supposed to be voluntary, cities and counties, as well as developers, will feel pressured into abiding by them. In a memo to the CEC, CWEA notes that “the prescriptive approaches [the guidelines] advocate will undoubtedly become the default approach, regardless of merit in specific cases, specifically in low-impact areas.”
Rader adds that her organization believes the CEC guidelines lack real scientific basis. “The guidelines call for a lot of data gathering, but the science isn’t there yet,” she says. “There is no linkage to the predications. There is a limited ability to predict the impact.”
Rader also says that the guidelines’ authors overlooked an important aspect to the wildlife impact: development sprawl. “Turbines and wind farms are often the only open space around developed areas,” she says, so wildlife will gravitate to those areas naturally. Unpopulated land is where the birds and bats will find their prey. “You have to also consider that the turbines were built before the developments.”
While Rader admits that the raptors are more likely to have a higher collision rate because of the height of the turbines, she is not sure birds or bats are drawn to the turbines or have collision rates that are out of the norm. Some research supports Rader’s assumptions.
The National Wind Coordinating Committee conducted a study in 2001 to investigate avian collisions with wind turbines. The study suggests that while the presence of wind turbines can cause bird collisions, the threat is much less than it is for other man-made structures. Each year, the report states, millions of birds are killed in collisions with buildings, vehicles and communication towers. By comparison, less than 100,000 birds are killed in collisions with wind generation facilities or turbines.
The report notes that there are millions more buildings, vehicles and communication towers than there are wind turbines, but there is no reason to believe the statistics still would not be on the low side. In fact, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports that avian deaths from collision with wind turbines likely will not reach more than 1% of all collision-related death.
Bat collisions are also low in number and tend to be a more regional problem than bird collisions. Research on bat collision is ongoing. However, AWEA does add that wind turbines can impact birds, as well as other wildlife, by fragmenting the habitat, an assertion the Wildlife Society supports.
According to Dr. Ed Arnett, conservation scientist with Bat Conservation International and chairman of the organization’s technical review committee, wind energy facilities can result in loss of natural habitat for wildlife, due to construction, facility footprint ind increased human access to the area.
In his report “Impacts of Wind Energy Facilities on Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat,” Arnett supports Rader’s assertion that more long-term research needs to be conducted to see how habitats might be disturbed and how environmentalists and wind farm developers can work together to reduce negative wildlife impact.
Rader recognizes that concerns about the raptor population in California’s Altamont Pass are a leading issue for the state’s new guidelines. Altamont Pass, however, is one of the few areas in which environmental impact has been studied in some depth. It is also not representative of other locations where wind turbines are planned.
“Situations vary by site,” she says. “Plus, you have to look at the impact of the whole project cycle.” When considering the impact on wildlife, governments should also look at the impact of air quality from wind energy versus other forms of energy available. “In the end,” she says, “local government agencies have to go with the common good.”
BY SUE MARQUETTE POREMBA
North American Windpower, December 2007
Sue Marquette Poremba is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer.
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