WALLOPS –Concerns about windmills’ effects on birds and bats apparently scuttled NASA’s proposal to use wind to generate electricity for Wallops Flight Facility.
Wind power, identified as the preferred alternative in a 2009 environmental study for a Wallops renewable energy project, would have saved up to $1 million a year by generating about 30 percent of the facility’s electricity using two utility-scale wind turbines.
But the recently released final environmental report by URS Group Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md., recommended instead installing up to 80 acres of solar panels at the Wallops main base, which would generate 10 gigawatt-hours per year of electricity – enough to power about 830 homes.
Solar power was substituted for wind in the final report largely because of comments from regulatory agencies about turbines’ potential negative effect on wildlife, Wallops’ Director for Management Operations Caroline Massey said.
But solar won’t be installed at the base anytime soon because at today’s prices it has a 50-year payback period, versus eight for wind, Massey said. “There is no project to do that at this point. … Ultimately we are stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” she said. Funding was in place for the turbines.
Massey said NASA hoped to install at least one windmill as a demonstration project to gather data about its effect on birds and whether adaptive management techniques could lessen that – for example, running turbines less during peak migration.
The purpose of the energy project was to reduce costs and meet requirements of the 2005 Federal Energy Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to meet at least 5 percent of their energy needs through renewable resources by 2012.
The directive applies to NASA as a whole, not Wallops specifically, Massey said, adding the agency is “well on track” to meeting the goal.
Federal and state agencies and organizations including Audubon, The Nature Conservancy and Assateague Coastal Trust during the environmental study submitted comments about the negative effect installing large wind turbines on Wallops Island could have on birds and bats.
NASA beginning in October 2008 conducted a 12-month field study to assess the potential impact, including conducting surveys during spring and fall migration and compiling fatality reports for existing towers near the proposed locations.
Observations at two sites “were generally unremarkable in terms of species encountered and numbers of birds,” the report said. The largest number of any species counted was snow geese – 72 percent – and 81 percent of bird flights recorded were below 50 feet, well below where rotor blades would be. Less than 2 percent of birds were within the blade zone.
The avian study concluded “there will be some insignificant risk to birds. … However, projects of this size (i.e., one or two turbines) have never been found to result in significant numbers of bird fatalities. … Based on our field observations and on empirical studies conducted at wind plants around the U.S. and in Europe, biologically significant impacts are unlikely to occur.”
Researchers found 25 bird carcasses, parts or feathers and one bat carcass at three existing towers on the island during the 12-month study. Of those, five sets of remains could have been from birds that were alive and were preening or molting, they said.
No rare or endangered species were among the fatalities.
Additionally, studies by the New Jersey Audubon Society at a five-turbine project in Atlantic City – “a very similar setting” to Wallops Island – showing low bird and bat fatalities, which the report said lent “strong support to the potential for the Wallops Island two-turbine demonstration project to cause low risk to a similar coastal avian community.”
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disagreed, commenting that Wallops Flight Facility “is in very close proximity to a nationally recognized bird migration pathway as well as an Important Bird Area.” The EPA said NASA’s bird studies were not adequate to determine potential adverse effects.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also expressed concern about installing turbines on a barrier island “within an internationally important bird migration corridor” and Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, Coastal Zone Management Program and Department of Game and Inland Fisheries made similar comments.
The DGIF said 84 percent of Virginia bird species in greatest need of conservation are present on the northern barrier islands, which include Wallops.
As a result, instead of proceeding with either a wind or solar energy project, Wallops Flight Facility is taking other steps to reduce energy consumption which do not require environmental studies – including replacing lighting with more energy-efficient models, replacing the central steam-powered heating plant with more efficient propane boilers, and replacing older vehicles with hybrid models, Massey said.
Two residential-size 2.4 kilowatt wind turbines still will be installed, likely by the end of the year – one at the Visitor Center and the other at the base entrance. Those will be used mainly to educate employees and the public about renewable energy.
The study’s identification of solar power as the preferred alternative also will preserve Wallops Flight Facility’s ability to pursue the project in the future as solar technology becomes more cost-effective, Massey said.
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