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Keen to show off its environmental credentials, the eThekwini electricity department is rushing to install wind turbines at the Bluff military base ahead of the UN COP 17 climate change meeting, placing a crucial bat roosting area in jeopardy.
The department has come under fire over its plans to showcase the “green energy” turbines close to one of South Africa’s largest colonies of slit-faced bats.
It is racing to install the second-hand turbines in a prominent spot above the Durban harbour entrance so the project would be visible to the thousands of delegates attending the climate change meeting, which starts on November 28.
However, the project site at the military base is close to a colony of about 400 Egyptian slit-faced bats (Nycteris thebaica), raising fears that the nocturnal insect eaters would be decimated by the spinning blades.
Initially, eThekwini hoped to install four 150kW turbines along the Bluff headland, but the project has been scaled down to two turbines, each with 23m rotor blades.
The bases of the 30m-high turbines would have to be laid within the next few days if the concrete foundations are to set in time for the conference.
Electricity department spokesman Raj Dhrochand said the small scale of the project did not require a full environmental impact assessment in terms of EIA regulations, but bat conservation groups and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife say it is essential to examine the potential impacts more thoroughly.
“COP 17 should not be about window-dressing; we should be demonstrating our commitment to generating renewable energy which is responsible and sustainable,” said Andy Blackmore, acting land-use manager at Ezemvelo.
Wendy White, of the KZN Bat Interest Group, said eThekwini officials had been told of the existence of the colony of slit-faced bats in August, but an environmental impact consultant was only due to arrive in Durban this week to start the consultation process.
“This project appears to be short-sighted and politically motivated. “Putting turbines so close to such a critical bat roost will wipe out these bats and is totally unacceptable.”
Although the slit-faced bat is not listed as a threatened species, White said the Bluff military base colony was one of the largest maternity roosts in the country for the species, and the turbines posed a major threat.
Durban was also an important foraging area for the large-eared free-tailed bat (Otomops martienssen), a more vulnerable bat species restricted to the coast between Ballito and Port Shepstone.
Dhrochand said his department had contacted the national Environmental Affairs Department and was advised that a full EIA was not needed.
“However, as responsible government, we decided to engage all relevant stakeholders and we will have an environmental management plan to deal with and mitigate potential impacts.”
He acknowledged that the department faced a tight schedule if it hoped to get the turbines running before the conference.
The concrete bases, which have yet to be laid, require about 27 days to cure.
“Obviously we would like to have them up before COP 17, but if there are serious issues, we will have to re-examine this… at the end of the day it might be a case of having just one.”
He said Bremen had donated four turbines to Durban as part of a scheme to share experience in renewable energy technologies.
Apart from showcasing the turbines for COP 17, the electricity department hoped to gain experience in assembling, erecting and maintaining wind turbines.
One of the turbines had been found to be unusable, while one of the remaining three would be kept as a spare. Five tower sites at the Bluff military base had been investigated. Three of these sites had been ruled out because they were too close to military communications infrastructure, too close to houses or too close to the bat colony.
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