A St. Louis company hopes to build Florida’s first wind farm, on thousands of acres of sugar land east of Belle Glade.
Wind Capital Group is looking to convert the breezes blowing off Lake Okeechobee into energy that could power homes and businesses across South Florida.
The company met with Palm Beach County planners last week to begin work on changes to the county’s development rules that would be needed before its turbines could be built.
The $250 million project could be a boon for the area, creating 250 to 300 construction jobs, the company estimates, in a depressed region where unemployment rates in November ranged as high as 44.9 percent in South Bay and 30.4 percent in Pahokee – well above the countywide average.
“That is tremendous,” Brenda Bunting, Executive Director of the Belle Glade Chamber of Commerce, said of the project. “We would be excited to see something like that come. We are always looking for things that benefit this community.”
The company wants to build between 84 and 100 wind turbines, on land near the intersection of State Road 880 and Browns Farm Road in the county’s Everglades Agricultural Area. The turbines would be placed 1/4- to 1/2-mile apart from each other and would stretch across 11,000 to 15,000 acres, said Robin Saiz, Wind Capital’s director of project development.
Wind Capital would lease land around the base of the turbines from area farmers and sugar growers, who would continue to farm the remaining property.
Each turbine would stand between 262 feet and 328 feet tall, roughly the height of a 30-story building or the Statue of Liberty, which stands 305 feet from ground to flame.
Saiz said the turbines, which produce little noise, would likely be visible to westbound travelers on State Road 80 from several miles away as they approach 20-Mile Bend.
The 150-megawatt farm would generate the energy equivalent of more than 500,000 barrels of oil each year, according to the company’s web site.
Environmentalists say they are concerned spinning turbines could harm birds and bats.
“There are a lot of questions that remain to be answered, before we jump on the wind energy bus,” said Joanne Davis, a community planner with 1000 Friends of Florida.
One fear: that migratory birds flying through the region could be struck by the fast-moving blades. The endangered snail kite, for one, could be devastated if even a few were killed, environmentalists say.
They point a wind farm located just east of San Francisco where thousands of birds have been hit by the spinning blades – a project Wind Capital officials said uses outdated technology.
“When you talk about birds like the snail kite, we can’t afford to have any mortality,” said Drew Martin, conservation chairman for the Sierra Club’s Loxahatchee Group.
Wind Capital sat with environmental groups before this last week’s meeting with county planners, to discuss the groups’ concerns. The company is working with a consulting firm to study bird flight patterns near Lake Okeechobee. Company officials also have met with various government agencies and elected officials to discuss the project.
“We are trying to be as transparent as we can,” Saiz said.
Christian Newman, Senior Scientist and President of Pandion Systems, a Gainesville consulting firm, says his company has been tapped to monitor the proposed turbine site five days a last week over the course of a year. They are studying many patterns, including the birds’ flight heights and directions.
Turbines can be located in spots that fewer birds pass over, Newman said. Turbines can also be turned off during hours when birds are most likely to fly through the area.
The turbines’ height can also be adjusted to accommodate birds, Newman said.
Although wind resources are considered minimal in Florida, Wind Capital says it has spent about a year studying wind flow near in South Florida. The breeze between Lake Okeechobee and the coast is ideal, company officials said.
Wind Capital isn’t the first to attempt a wind farm in the state.
In June 2007, Florida Power & Light Co. announced plans to build the first wind farm in Florida, on Hutchinson Island, 8 miles south of Fort Pierce in St. Lucie County. The plan met resistance from nearby residents and has been put on hold.
Wind Capital hopes to have its turbines running by the end of next year, Saiz said. The company plans to have a long-term agreement to sell energy generated by the farm.
Construction would take between 8 to 10 months, the company estimated.
Wind Capital has developed wind farms across the central part of the country, including projects in Missouri and Minnesota.
The company’s current projects have the potential of producing enough wind energy to power more than 300,000 homes, according to its website.
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