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Questions raised as county embarks on wind code  

On Wednesday, the Cochise County Planning and Zoning Commission will meet to gather information on permitting potential wind farms.

California-based Clipper Windpower initiated the issue over possible wind generation in the Mule Mountains in Bisbee. The meeting, however, will not address any issues directly linked to Clipper’s proposal since, says county planner Susana Montana, “we haven’t heard a word from them in months.”

Last December, before withdrawing their permit application, Clipper sought to establish four towers with anonometers on private lands on the north end of the Mule Mountains south of Davis Road and two on adjoining state lease land. Clipper said that it would explore the potential for two years to develop a 50-100 megawatt wind farm.

Cochise County has a fairly low grade, but usable, wind potential based on 30-year wind analyses from the Northern Arizona University Wind Working Group. The group created six county wind maps and accompanying economic impact studies of wind development, including Cochise.

The NAU study found very preliminary commercial potential of 50-100 megawatt generation with further potential of spread out small scale “homestead” level development. About 276 megawatts of scattered development could occur over the perhaps 10 percent of usable land.

Critics have jumped on these limitations for commercial development in the NAU study as a reason to halt what they perceive as destruction of the Mule Mountains.

Impacts on wildlife

Some critics also are concered about the impacts on local wildlife, such as bats and birds.

A coalition of government agencies, academics, and wind industry representatives called the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative has been experimenting with technologies to address wind tubine bat kills. Bats are critical pollinators for tropical fruit as well as agave.

BWEC has estimated that one turbine can kill 50 bats – particularly during times of low intermittent wind where the bats appear to be attracted by multiple factors including ultrasonic vibration attracting their natural sonar, and possibly insects that appear in corridors cleared for wind turbines when winds are low.

BWEC scientists are experimenting with an ultrasonic device that, “sounds like a 747 to bats” according to BWEC Project Coordinator Edward Arnett. The combination of stopping the turbines when conditions attract bats, and the hope that their sonar deterrent device will work, are major strategies to address existing problems.

Not siting towers in areas of high bat populations is a priority of wildlife agencies at the state and federal levels.

Ginger Ritter is the Arizona Fish and Game expert on wind impacts on wildlife and she enforces the voluntary state guidelines. “The longer blades on larger scale turbines are sometimes 180 feet in diameter, and that may be a major concern regarding bat mortality from wind turbines.

This goes beyond steps to use noise to counter possible ultrasonic vibration attraction to bats. We just don’t know why the deaths are there, but the bat deaths increase and the wind turbines get larger.”

“Arizona has 500 species of birds and 28 bat species with migratory patterns; most of the bats are in Southeast Arizona. A concern in the Sulfur Springs Valley of Cochise County is the endangered lesser long-nose bat. We addressed this in a letter to Clipper Windpower last year regarding their four proposed towers on the 47 Ranch and two towers on state lease land. There are no known colonies within five miles; but there are within eight to 10 miles. These bats forage on agave nectar, so any agave plant will attract them,” she added.

William Auberle, NAU professor of civil and environmental engineering, will be speaking at the Wednesday meeting. He stresses that understanding bird and bat migratory patterns for a specific site is critical,

“There are ways to mitigate bird and bat impacts; however, in a migratory path, it will always be difficult. Wind towers should not be placed in them.” He cites some simple measures that have reduced bird death dramatically such as no perches.

Anomometers, such as the ones proposed by Clipper, are probably not a big problem, except the wires holding them should use some shiny hanging substance to ward off birds.

Auberle, an avid birder as well as wind power afficionado, says that it’s imperative to know the migratory patterns in the Sulfur Springs Valley if wind development takes place. “We know the Chiricahuas are off-limits and probably other areas in Southeast Arizona are also.”

Montana adds, “If Clipper Wind goes ahead, the anomometer stage of gathering data should be relatively benign to birds and bats, although they should hang something to scare birds, and if it’s over 199 feet they would need to put a light on top to protect airplanes.”

Montana continues, “Clipper’s problem is gaining legal access through state land because they don’t want to build a full-blown road which the state requires, so they propose using a helicopter to build and access towers.

“Now if Clipper, or somebody, actually develops a wind farm, we have a lot of code precedents from other counties, such as Coconino and Mojave, to use in developing a special-use permit. You can put a lot of conditions on that to protect habitat.”

Development questions

Counties such as Coconino and Mojave have incorporated state and federal guidelines into their wind codes. Mojave County will be requiring that wind developments have “sufficient evidence to support a commercial wind farm,” a provision that could address one concern of wind opponents in Cochise County. Towers cannot be sited on ridges where they would attract birds and bats.

County wind development in Arizona will be carried out in the context of Arizona Fish and Game voluntary guidelines. Arizona Fish and Game believes in providing maximum input to the county on potential species impacts – but does not have enforcement power over how siting takes place, except to ensure that endangered species are protected.

Wind development in most places in the West will end up in the hands of county planning and zoning departments. On private land in most cases, ranchers or farmers will lease out easements to allow a wind developer access to their property.

In most cases, on private land, the county will have set up a permitting code to govern wind development.

Wind farms have been placed on public and private lands. Private lands are ultimately governed by county or city planning and zoning codes. Public lands can vary enormously in the degree of attention given to environmental impacts of any projects that are on them.

Arizona state lease lands have often been criticized by environmentalists as having little public participation or policy guidelines to address environmental issues.

Cochise County is in a poorly-defined wind power category, says Montana.

“Realistically, studying the NAU maps, windpower in Cochise County, could be more speculative than real,” she says. “I’m not real confident in the economic future of wind here and don’t want to waste taxpayer money on developing a code until such time as a real project is ready to invest.”

However, says Montana, “Solar, that’s different; with solar, this county is good – we’re the ‘babe.’ We’ll be attending a seminar on solar codes, and then we’ll hold a similar session on permitting solar this summer, but with an eye to developing a code.”

By Dick Kamp
Wick News Service

Sierra Vista Herald

13 May 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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