Towering wind turbines – offering the promise of alternative energy but also posing a threat to endangered birds – moved a step closer Thursday to coming to Palm Beach County farmland.
County commissioners approved changing development rules in order to better accommodate the 500-foot towers with rotating arms that catch the wind in order to generate power.
The final vote on the alternative energy development guidelines is to be Aug. 29.
The wind turbines create an environmental conundrum for some because of a proposal to erect a “wind farm” on agricultural land that was once part of the Everglades.
Putting wind turbines in the Everglades Agricultural Area threatens to create hazards for endangered and migrating birds that frequent the wide-open spaces south of Lake Okeechobee, according to representatives of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society.
While many environmentalists support alternatives to the polluting practice of burning fossil fuels to generate energy, they say putting wind turbines on the farmland in western Palm Beach County could pose too great a risk for eagles, wood storks and the Everglades snail kite.
“These turbines will definitely interfere with the protection of flight paths from one end of the world to the other,” said long-time environmental activist Rosa Durando, of Audubon.
Looming in the background of the County Commission’s decision Thursday was a still-pending proposal from the Missouri-based Wind Capital Group to build 80 wind turbines spread across 16,000 acres of sugar cane land near Belle Glade.
The wind turbines’ large rotating blades can spin nearly 200 mph, with each tower potentially generating enough energy to power 400 homes.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a July 1 letter to the company called for a more thorough analysis of potential wildlife threats from the wind farm. The federal regulators said that bird “collisions with turbine blades are often fatal, and usually resulting in the animal being effectively eliminated from the breeding population.”
Species that inhabit the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the northern reaches of the Everglades in western Palm Beach County, could be particularly at risk, according to the wildlife service.
George Gentile, the consultant who represents the wind-farm proposal from the Wind Capital Group, called the federal concerns and environmentalists’ objections premature. He said a yearlong review would determine the risk to birds and other wildlife.
The Wind Capital Group’s proposal still is working its way through the county review process.
“We are not spilling oil. We are not using fuel. We are not polluting the air,” Gentile said. “That’s what we ought to be looking more for.”
Even if wind turbine proposals eventually get county approval, they still would still need state and federal environmental permits to move forward.