Prospects for a proposed wind energy farm in Eastern North Carolina are likely to remain iffy as long as naturalists and environmentalists have doubts about the project on account of its proximity to a wild bird refuge.
In an attempt to alleviate those concerns, the developer behind the Pantego Wind Project, Invenergy, is conducting an extensive bird count in the area that will cost several hundred thousand dollars.
Invenergy representatives met with editors and reporters of The News & Observer on Tuesday to discuss the Beaufort County project.
he study is intended to determine the risk of erecting wind turbines, measuring nearly 500 feet tall, to visiting tundra swans and other migrating waterfowl that fly in the area to forage during the winter.
Duke University ecology professor Dan Richter, who also attended Tuesday’s meeting, expressed skepticism that a study can resolve anything. Richter doubts the independence and reliability of bird counts financed by a company with a vested interest in the outcome.
Richter said the raw numbers of a bird count won’t predict whether migrating birds would fly into the whirling blades, or whether they would avoid the turbines and fly elsewhere in search of food. Richter, along with some state and federal wildlife officials, say the unknowns involved in putting wind turbines near the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge don’t justify the benefits of a wind farm’s emissions-free electricity.
“This is a particular case of a wind project in a bird flyway,” Richter said. “It’s really tragic that (a) big project could risk not only birds, but also risk the perception of wind energy itself.”
Chicago-based Invenergy has 26 utility-scale projects in this country. The company is also exploring developing a wind farm of up to 300 megawatts in Camden and Currituck counties.
The 80-megawatt Pantego project depends on approval from state and federal regulators, and critics are urging the N.C. Utilities Commission to delay making a decision at least until Invenergy completes the bird study.
More than 100,000 tundra swans visit North Carolina each winter, according to some estimates. The bird population is thriving, and they are legal to hunt, said David Groberg, Invenergy’s vice president of business development.
The Pantego study in Beaufort County, conducted by two biologists who work in shifts, will be completed in May or June, said Jack Godshall, Invenergy’s business development manager.
“We take these wildlife issues very seriously,” Groberg said. “We think we made a good choice (of location), but we’re not blind to the fact that others think we might not have.”
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