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Windmill debate heats up  

Construction goes on as critics, backers make case

Wind energy is a good source of clean, inexhaustible energy, but whether it should be tapped in South Texas remains the center of a fierce debate among developers and environmentalists.

Both groups made arguments for and against two wind farms already under construction in rural South Texas to Nueces County commissioners Wednesday. The county agreed to hear an informational presentation.

Calling Kenedy County the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, developer John Calaway highlighted the jobs that projects could create in rural South Texas and increased traffic to the Port of Corpus Christi, which ships components for the giant windmills.

“Corpus has a great deal of opportunity to benefit significantly,” said Calaway, a chief developer for Australia-based Babcock and Brown Ltd., which is building an $800 million wind facility on property owned by the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation.

Combined with a $400 million Peñascal Wind Farm on property owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust, the projects will place roughly 240 turbines on thousands of acres of Kenedy County property.

The Coastal Habitat Alliance, made up of the King Ranch and several environmental groups, agrees wind energy has benefits. But the group cites environmental concerns including potential damage to South Texas bird populations and possible harm to the Laguna Madre as reasons the projects should not happen in Kenedy County.

“We are very concerned about impacts,” said Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental attorney representing the Coastal Habitat Alliance. “I am for wind energy. The question is: Is wind supportable at this site?”

The Coastal Habitat Alliance has sued the Public Utility Commission and the Texas General Land office to stop the projects but has seen no relief because there is no state or federal regulatory oversight where wind farms are concerned.

“There is no one for us to take this to,” Blackburn said. “There is no regulatory agency.”

Calaway said the wind farm teams have studies showing no significant threat to birds or endangered species.

“We have spent 3 1/2 years of intense studies working with biologists and avian specialists,” he said. “The majority of birds fly well above turbine height. We do not believe this will have any significant biological affects.”

On Tuesday, the Coastal Habitat Alliance sought an injunction in U.S. District Court in Austin to block forward movement on the projects based on a new argument that the impermeable surfaces at the facilities are a danger to the groundwater and freshwater inflows that feed the Laguna Madre.

Blackburn said Wednesday that heavy equipment to and from the wind farms would compact sands over the groundwater on the Kenedy properties, impeding the water’s movement toward the Laguna Madre.

Local petroleum geologist and geophysicist Paul Strunk, who is working on the neighboring Peñascal Wind Farm under construction on property owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust, faulted the science Blackburn cited and said no matter how much it is compacted sand remains permeable.

It could be months before the federal court makes a decision one way or another, Blackburn said. In the meantime, construction at the sites will continue.

Wind Energy in Kenedy County

What it is: Wind farms generate electricity by using wind to turn giant blades that rotate on turbines, an alternative to power created by utilities using coal, natural gas and other sources. The following projects will place roughly 240 turbines on thousands of acres of Kenedy County property.

– A $400 million Peñascal Wind Farm on property owned by the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust

– A $800 million Gulf Wind project by Australia-based Babcock & Brown Ltd. on property owned by the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation.

Environmental Issues

– The Coastal Habitat Alliance contends the projects and infrastructure to support them will destroy critical wildlife habitat.

– Wind farm developers are working with scientists to study the environmental impact of the farms. Data so far contradicts the alliance’s statements, developers say.

– The alliance says the turbines are a threat to birds that migrate through the region.

– Developers cite studies that show a majority of bird migration occurs above the wind turbines which tower more than 3,000 feet into the air, and that the rotors are large enough to allow incoming birds to avoid them.

– The alliance says the roads and impermeable surfaces at the facilities will thwart the flow of groundwater and fresh water inflows that feed the Laguna Madre.

– Developers said they have scientists and data including hydrology analysis and storm water planning to negate that claim. They say the project layouts also identified and avoided wetlands.

Source: Coastal Habitat Alliance attorney Jim Blackburn and Babcock & Brown

By Jaime Powell

Corpus Christi Caller-Times

20 March 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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