An 11,000-acre wind energy farm proposed near a wildlife refuge in northeastern North Carolina is facing concerns about the fate of thousands of migrating swans and geese that would share air space with giant spinning turbines.
The Pantego Wind Energy Facility, featuring 49 turbines rising 492 feet to the tip of the blade, had the potential of becoming the state’s first commercial wind farm, with construction planned for next year.
The 80-megawatt project is planned just several miles from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, created in 1963 to attract migrating snowbirds. Only a few years ago the U.S. Navy was forced to cancel plans for building an airfield nearby, after an outcry over potential bird kills.
Now many of the same environmental groups that fought the Navy – groups that have long advocated for wind energy in this state – are lining up against the wind farm in Beaufort County.
Their concern: The giant blades that spin at more than 100 mph will bat birds out of the sky as they fly to surrounding farms to forage during their winter migrations. The migrations in North Carolina typically begin this month, drawing hordes of tourists to behold the spectacle of more than 100,000 waterfowl performing their annual ritual.
The N.C. Utilities Commission, which has the authority to approve or deny the application, has scheduled hearings on Tuesday in Raleigh. Opponents will urge the commission to shelve the proposal until the potential threat to the birds can be assessed.
“Common sense indicates that a network of Washington Monument-sized wind turbines will impact these priceless flocks of waterfowl,” Duke University ecology professor Daniel Richter Jr. wrote to the commission recently. “This part of the state has been called the Serengeti of North Carolina, due to the magical cycles of migrations represented by the Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, and many species of ducks which so mysteriously and faithfully return each winter to the wetlands immediately surrounding the proposed site for the Pantego Wind Energy project.”
Pantego is a subsidiary of Invenergy, the Chicago-based wind developer which has more than two dozen wind farms in operation around the world and many more planned or under construction.
The company is now conducting bird counts until the end of the migration season in the spring, in response to concerns raised by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission that the rotating blades could pose a danger to bats, songbirds, bald eagles and migrating waterfowl.
Pantego has already signed more than 20 agreements with local landowners to host the turbines on their properties.
One of the landowners who will welcome Pantego is Dianne Bowen. She said the farmers are long overdue some compensation for letting the birds feast on their crops. And she noted that restricted hunting of the waterfowl is permitted during the migration season.
“The farmer has been feeding the wildlife so long and no one pays us back,” she said. “You are not going to find a lot of farmers who are too sympathetic to a couple of swans getting chased away by the wind turbines.”
Dave Groberg, Invenergy’s vice president for development for the Eastern United States, said bird mortality is a common issue when locating wind farms.
One solution is to provide additional habitats or protect a sensitive habitat in some other area to offset the areas used by turbines.
Another approach is eliminating or relocating some turbines, said Derb Carter, who oversees the North Carolina operations of the Southern Environmental Law Center. The closest Pantego turbine is 3 miles from the Pocosin refuge, while other parts of the wind farm are more than 10 miles from the refuge.
Groups that want to put the project on hold are the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club and Friends of Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge.
The Sierra Club contends the project could damage the prospects for wind power.
“It would be hazardous to the wind power industry because it would be such negative publicity if birds were killed,” said Robert Scull, a member of Sierra Club’s northeastern N.C. chapter. “The birds feed on the fields. It would be hard to imagine how (Pantego) would be able to prevent a significant number of bird kills.”
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