September 1, 2010

State moves to curb hazards alternative energy sites pose for wildlife

East Valley Tribune, 1 September 2010

With its sharp talons, powerful beak and 7-foot wingspan, the golden eagle is one of Arizona’s fiercest and most imposing birds of prey. It’s no match, however, for the rotating blades of turbines in wind farms.

Carcasses of eagles and other raptors are a common sight at wind farms across the country. According to a California Energy Commission study, over 1,000 birds of prey are killed every year by turbines at one wind farm, the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area near San Francisco.

To address this problem, the Arizona Game and Fish Department recently issued guidelines for developers planning wind farms and solar facilities. The recommendations are aimed at minimizing harm to wildlife and wildlife habitats.

For example, prospective developers are now urged to examine a Game and Fish survey of migratory patterns on potential wind farm sites and create a post-construction plan to monitor and analyze any turbine-related deaths.

“These guidelines are really only suggestions,” said Ginger Ritter, a Game and Fish spokeswoman. “But we’re in the business of preserving wildlife, and we see this as a good way of minimizing damage.”

The Dry Lake Wind Power Project, constructed near Heber in September 2009, is currently the only such farm in the state, but Ritter said that will soon change.

The push for increased reliance on alternative energy sources stems in part from an Arizona Corporation Commission mandate that utility companies obtain at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025.

“There are over 80 proposed places for alternative energy sites in Arizona,” Ritter said, “which made it important for us to have these guidelines in place as soon as possible.”

Solar energy facilities, which require large and flat areas of land, threaten groundwater supply and can reroute the flow of surface water. The resulting redirection of water can threaten wildlife by significantly altering the habitat.

Compliance with the new guidelines for construction of solar energy facilities now requires developers to review potential sites with Game and Fish authorities.

According to Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, the guidelines are a useful starting point for establishing lasting alternative energy site regulations to conserve Arizona’s wildlife.

“There’s going to be an impact [on wildlife] no matter what,” Bahr said. “But the new guidelines are a good place to start discussions on what can be done in the long term.”

Representatives of APS and SRP, Arizona’s two largest utilities providers, were unaware of the new guidelines when asked how they might impact their respective companies’ operations.

SRP spokesman Scott Harelson explained that, while his company is affiliated with several wind farms, the farms themselves are operated by private providers independent of SRP authority. “We have had good compliance with Game and Fish Department regulations in the past,” Harelson added, “and look forward to continuing to do so in the future.”

Ritter acknowledged the need for more effective communication between the Game and Fish Department and the state’s top utility companies but was confident that awareness of the new guidelines would improve.

“It’s good to have something in place that can reduce the impact these sites have on the environment,” Ritter said. “For a while, people were proposing whatever they wanted, and this is a more responsible way of development.”

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