In a feature story in the January 16 issue of Forbes Magazine I write about how the revival of the iconic but critically endangered California condor is on a collision course with the Golden State’s wind farm boom in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles.
Government biologists, wind industry executives and environmentalists have formed a task force and are racing to find a technological solution to the condor conundrum. On the verge of extinction 25 years ago, North America’s largest bird is rapidly expanding into its historic range where wind turbines are sprouting like California poppies after a March rain.
At this point it’s unknown whether the federally protected bird, which can fly some 200 miles in a day, will avoid huge turbine farms or be fatally attracted to the 500-foot-high machines as it scours the landscape for carrion. That creates a great deal of financial and legal uncertainty for wind developers, operators, financiers and utilities.
In other words, will wind farm owners and operators be held criminally liable if a turbine’s spinning blades kill a condor? Will banks and other investors shy away from financing wind projects for fear that the unauthorized “incidental take” – to use the legal language in the federal Endangered Species Act – of a condor could prompt interruptions in electricity production, and thus revenues, or even lead to the shut down of wind farms?
Last year, Google and Citibank invested more than $300 million to acquire two phases of Terra-Gen’s massive Alta wind energy complex under construction in the Tehachapi. The wildlife service has said there is a “high” potential for the condor to appear on the site of the Alta turbine farm.
Although the so-called leveraged lease deals call for the Google and Citibank to rent the projects back to Terra-Gen, which will operate the wind farms, the search giant and bank will be the projects’ owners.
“The ESA ‘take’ prohibition has been interpreted very broadly and applies to any entity that causes a take,” Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, wrote in an e-mail. “Consequently, while the operator is the most obviously liable, liability could also extend to the project owner, the landowner, and even to the county officials who permit the project, as their actions are also the legal ‘cause’ of the take.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group, joined the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife in a lawsuit filed in October against Kern County over its approval of NextEra Energy’s 300-megawatt North Sky River wind farm. State and federal wildlife officials had told the county the project posed a high risk to the condor.
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Lois Grunwald, was more circumspect on how far liability for a condor death could reach. “As with any alleged violation of the ESA, the service would investigate,” she wrote in an e-mail, referring to the Endangered Species Act. “The take of an endangered species is a violation of the law and the culpable entity would be liable.”
A Google spokesman referred questions about the Alta project to Terra-Gen executives, who have declined to comment on the condor issue.
Criminal prosecutions for killing endangered species are relatively rare, but then so is the condor. After the world population of wild condors fell to 22 individuals in 1987, the survivors were captured and placed in a captive breeding program at the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos. After 25 years, tens of millions of dollars and extraordinary efforts, the condor population has reached 400, with about half of those birds back in the wild in California, Arizona and Baja, Mexico.
As I wrote in the magazine story, one solution under consideration is the deployment of radar units at wind farms that would detect approaching condors and trigger the shutdown of wind turbines.
Even if that proves technologically feasible, it could prove financially problematic as wind farm operators typically sign decades-long contracts to sell a set amount of electricity to utilities. Not knowing how often a wind farm might have to curtail electricity production due to condors could make obtaining financing to build a project difficult, according to Mark Tholke, an executive with wind developer enXco.
“The banks buy a part of the project based on a financial model that lasts 20 years,” he says. “Just the specter of the uncertainty drives up the costs because the banks will say, ‘This is more risky.’ Already we’re seeing it.”
In Mexico, James Sheppard, a wildlife biologist with the San Diego Zoo’s condor recovery program, has deployed technology in an effort to predict where condors will travel. He’s integrating location data from solar-powered GPS units attached to the 27 members of the Baja colony with atmospheric information gathered from weather stations and GIS topography software.
“I’m developing a really fine-scale model of the birds’ movement patterns and habitat use that will be used as a predictive model to determine where the birds will be moving and expanding their ranges in the future, which will obviously have important implications for wind farm development,” says Sheppard, who expects to publish his research early this year.
Then there is the political fix. An on-going state and federal effort called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan seeks to allow solar and wind development in California while protecting endangered wildlife. The initiative, unveiled for environmental review in July, proposes to allow the incidental killing of California condors as long as developers take efforts to mitigate impacts on the species under a habitat conversation plan. (This week the wildlife service proposed allowing an Oregon wind farm operator to kill up to three golden eagles, also a fully protected endangered species, over five years.)
Get ready for a fight. As I wrote in the magazine story, a Fish and Wildlife Service official in October informed Kern County planners, who approve Tehachapi wind farms, that, “At this point in time we cannot envision a situation where we would permit the lethal take of California condors.”
In November, I asked Ashleigh Blackford, a senior wildlife biologist for renewable energy for the agency who serves on the condor task force, whether it’s likely the Fish and Wildlife Service would permit the killing of condors under a habitat conservation plan.
“It’s difficult to see a path forward for allowing the lethal take of a condor,” she says. “What is the tipping point? If we do get to the point where we’re permitting some lethal take, we can say with some certainty that one is OK but five is not?