A giant wind farm in northeast Weld County may be a groundbreaking model of how to generate clean, renewable energy while protecting wildlife occupying the same space.
But it’s also been on the receiving end of some environmental criticism.
Since January, 274 wind turbines spread across 31,000 acres within the Pawnee National Grasslands have been producing electricity for Public Service Co. of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy Inc., providing enough power for 95,000 homes.
The $400 million Cedar Creek wind farm, owned by Babcock and Brown of Sydney, Australia, and operated by BP Alternative Energy North America, a subsidiary of what was formerly British Petroleum, is the third-largest wind farm in America in number of turbines.
So what’s it doing in the middle of a national recreation area known for its migratory and short-grass prairie nesting bird populations?
Lots of wind that almost never stops blowing. That’s why the original developer of the project, Green Light Energy Inc., chose the site. It also worked out deals with private landowners and the State Land Board, for long-term leases on land within the boundaries of the western portion of the federal Pawnee National Grasslands.
Greenlight was later purchased by BP, which continued to partner with Babcock and Brown. The project received final approval from the Weld County Board of Commissioners in August 2006.
Groups chime in
During the approval process, a number of agencies, landowners and interested parties – including the Audubon Society – gave comments and testimony on the project. Troy Florian, district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said his agency was concerned about the project’s potential wildlife impacts.
“One of the primary concerns was the direct impact on avian as well as bat species,” Florian said. “We asked for nesting corridor buffers away from the wind infrastructure.”
Of particular concern was the 100-foot-tall escarpment that runs through a portion of the grasslands, where many raptor species build nests. The developers were asked to keep the turbines at least one-quarter mile from the edge of the escarpment so as not to drive away the raptors or increase the risk that they would be killed by the rapidly turning blades.
While some of the turbines were moved, others were located within the quarter-mile setback because that’s where the wind lifts best and maximizes the electricity-producing capacity of the turbines.
Sarah Howell, a BP spokeswoman, said the project developers made an extra effort to avoid harming bird populations in the area.
“We did many studies with nationally renowned wildlife consultants to the wind industry before developing the project, including adjusting layouts to minimize impacts to sharp-tailed grouse (a Colorado endangered species) and moving turbines back away from the escarpment edge in many cases to minimize potential impacts to raptors,” she said. “We also worked closely with the Colorado Division of Wildlife on final site design to minimize bird impacts.”
Bird lovers not impressed
Ken Strom, director of bird conservation for Audubon Colorado, said he is disappointed that Cedar Creek’s developers did not move all the turbines away from the escarpment.
“In terms of the outcome of the hearings, I don’t think (our concerns) were adequately addressed,” he said. “I think they tried to meet a number of our concerns but they fought to move a minimum of the turbines.”
Strom notes that some birds will be killed as a result of having the turbines within their traditional nesting areas and others will simply avoid the area out of fear of the constantly whooshing towers.
Strom said the project is ironic in that it produces clean energy but also has negative environmental impacts on wildlife.
“The Audubon Society, along with a lot of other people we work with, are strongly supportive of wind energy and it needs to be part of our national energy future, but we don’t want it to succeed over conflicts with other public concerns,” he said.
Kevin Cook, a Fort Collins-based naturalist, said improvements in wind turbine designs – which used to be smaller and more deadly for birds – have reduced the mortality to a large extent.
“The industry started making bigger blades, and now birds can see them and there are far fewer collisions,” he said.
Cook said a recent study showed a national average of 2.3 birds killed per turbine tower per year. He said that compares to the average house cat that kills between two and 10 birds per year.
“It’s one of those things where people are selective in their indignation,” Cook said.
He also notes that the area where most of the concern has been focused is not a place where bird watchers would notice a change.
“It’s really beyond the area where most birders spend their time,” he said. “And in most of the areas out there there’s no legal access to them.”
The turbines sit on about 118 acres of the 31,000 acres in long-term leases between the developers and private landowners and the state.
Still, Cook said it’s unfortunate that the turbines were erected where they were.
“It’s like putting these wind towers right on the edge of a national park,” he said.
William Burnidge, Northeast Colorado project director for the Colorado chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said BP Alternative Energy has been working with his group – one of the largest nature conservation organizations in the world – to further minimize Cedar Creek’s impact on wildlife.
Burnidge said developers have been cooperating with the Nature Conservancy to purchase conservation easements around the area to expand nesting zones for any species displaced by the project.
“By the end of the year, we hope to have 10,000 additional acres under easements,” Burnidge said.
“We are working cooperatively with (TNC) to show that wind-energy development and conservation efforts can work hand-in-hand in the same region,” said BP spokeswoman Howell.
Burnidge said despite its flaws the Cedar Creek project may end up being a model for other wind projects to emulate.
“Is it a perfect project? Very few are,” he said. “Does it give us a model for how alternative energy and wildlife conservation can go forward? That’s our goal.
“There’s going to be a lot more wind-power projects in Colorado, so we need to learn how best to go about doing it,” he added. “That’s the tricky point – can you achieve both? But that’s what we’re working hard to achieve.”
By Steve Porter
28 March 2008
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