Florida is the latest battleground for greens anguished about the ecological costs of green power.
This time, a proposal for a sprawling wind farm just north of the Everglades is facing blowback from environmental groups that worry it could become an avian Cuisinart for the wading birds, raptors and waterfowl that teem in the sprawling marshes nearby.
At least one statewide conservation organization has come out against the project by the St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group, which would feature as many as 100 turbines as tall as the Statue of Liberty stretched across a 20,000-acre swath of sugar cane and vegetable farms in western Palm Beach County.
The National Audubon Society’s Florida affiliate is also taking a hard look at the wind proposal, although it has yet to take a position.
“We think alternative energy is absolutely necessary,” said Jane Graham, Audubon’s Everglades policy associate. “You see what’s happening with coal plants and climate change. … But as far as the location of this wind farm, that has raised serious concerns.”
That location would place the turbines near the northernmost remnants of the Everglades, as well as the South’s largest lake and a series of man-made cleanup marshes that have become magnets for egrets, herons and ducks. The region is also the epicenter of a $15 billion Everglades restoration effort that federal agencies hope will revive the throngs of wading birds that once crowded the skies over South Florida.
“There are literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of ducks in a 100-mile radius or less of this location,” said Newton Cook, executive director of United Waterfowlers-Florida, a roughly 1,000-member group whose board voted in April to oppose the project. “These whirling blades could, in our opinion, be devastating.”
The WCG said it is committed to addressing the environmental concerns, and it has drawn praise from activists for reaching out to the green groups well before applying for permits. It has also started a yearlong study of bird and bat populations and behavior on both the project location and in the surrounding area, WCG Senior Vice President Sarah Webster told POLITICO.
“We respect this environmentally unique area,” Webster said, adding that the company expects to have “supportive relationships” with most of the environmental groups.
“When proposing any large-scale project, you’re never going to bring everyone along with you, but we’re working hard to engage with the many environmental groups in the area to understand and address their concerns with strong research and science,” she said.
The WCG has yet to apply for state and federal permits but hopes the roughly $250 million project will be up and running by the end of 2012.
Webster said the initiative has implications for national energy policy: The 150-megawatt project would be perhaps the first commercial-scale wind farm in the Southeast, where a dearth of renewable energy sources has complicated proposals for addressing the region’s climate impacts. It could also provide needed jobs in western Palm Beach County’s impoverished farming region.
In a presentation earlier this year to local planners, the WCG said modern turbine designs will significantly reduce the risk to birds. The rotors spin more slowly than in older windmills, and the turbines’ smooth, monopole bases don’t offer the potential nesting spaces that older lattice designs did.
Worries about bird deaths have plagued a number of wind projects, especially after tens of thousands of golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and other species fell prey to the blades of a sprawling, decades-old wind farm in the mountains near San Francisco.
Last summer, the Bureau of Land Management reacted to those types of concerns by suspending the issuing of wind permits on public lands until companies submit eagle protection plans. More recently, The Denver Post reported that the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing an eagle conservation plan that has some in the wind industry concerned that the safeguards could add years to the time it takes to carry out a project.
John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said modern, properly sited projects haven’t posed major threats to birds. He added that wind turbines kill far fewer birds each year than do feral cats, power lines or telecommunications towers.
In particular, he said, post-construction studies of bird mortality show that only a low percentage of wading birds and waterfowl collide with the blades.
“The reality is that everything we do as humans has an impact on the natural environment,” Anderson said. Still, he said the hazards posed by wind energy “are far exceeded by impacts created by other forms of energy generation.”
Indeed, the proposed wind farm may be by far the cleanest energy initiative to have targeted South Florida’s marsh- and farm-laden interior in recent years – especially compared with a coal plant that NextEra Energy’s Florida Power & Light subsidiary tried to build in neighboring Glades County during the past decade. FPL is also putting the finishing touches on a natural gas plant in central Palm Beach County that inspired a 2008 blockade by more than 100 environmental protesters, who objected to emitting greenhouse gases so close to the Everglades.
Besides putting out emissions, traditional power plants also require a lot of water for cooling, an increasing concern for drought-prone Florida. But wind turbines don’t need water.
Still, some conservationists said they don’t think the WCG’s studies go far enough. They fear that the location alone is a recipe for feathery havoc.
“These are migratory flight paths – not just [for] our birds,” said Rosa Durando, a longtime activist with the local Audubon chapter in Palm Beach County. “Birds from the Northern Hemisphere, they go to Mexico, they fly through Florida. The whole thing is sickening to me.”
Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the turbines.
“I’m kind of too unknowledgeable yet to say whether I support them or don’t,” said Joanne Davis, a planner for the environmental group 1000 Friends of Florida, who serves with Durando on a local land-development board that is considering rules for the wind project.
Besides awaiting results from the company’s studies, Davis said she’s interested in what conclusions agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will draw when they study the proposal.
“I’m all for renewable energy,” Davis said. “If it’s feasible, if it’s not going to slaughter the wildlife, if it will work – then great.”
Wind isn’t the only form of renewable energy to face environmental challenges. Green groups have joined American Indian tribes in suing over plans to build sprawling solar-thermal power plants in the California desert, charging that they will disrupt habitat for desert wildlife, as well as burial sites.
Nathanael Greene, renewable energy policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Associated Press earlier this year that resolving these types of eco-disputes poses “a broad challenge to us as a country.”
“How do we rapidly deploy the renewable energy technologies and transmission infrastructures to stave off catastrophic climate change and local and regional air pollution that comes with burning fossil fuels?” Greene asked. “Even the best-sited projects have impacts on the landscape.”
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