Another year of studying the hunting patterns of golden eagles will help determine whether the federal government will allow plans to proceed for a 44-turbine wind farm in the mountains 20 miles northeast of Sparks.
With another season, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have two years of data on the soaring and hunting patterns of golden eagles near the proposed Virginia Peak project, said Amedee Bricky, who is a migratory bird biologist for the service in Sacramento.
“The turbines pose a lethal hazards for the birds,” she said. “The biggest concern is the birds don’t recognize the spinning blades as a hazard.”
Champlin Winds, which purchased the development rights to the project, has hired environmental consultants to conduct a study of the birds and other wildlife. They have captured several nearby eagles and attached radio devices to track their flight patterns, Bricky said.
“We’ll get a better sense of how the birds are using the area, how they forage,” she said.
Even though new turbines rotate slower than those of the past, she said, the speed of the blade tips is still fast enough to kill.
Several nesting sites for the protected golden eagle are within five to 10 miles of the turbines planned for the top of the Pah Rah Range overlooking Palomino Valley. In all, a study for a nearby wind project identified 11 nesting sites in that area.
The Virginia Peak project was approved by the Washoe County Planning Commission in 2009 and it approved several project changes in October 2010.
The environmental study is required before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management decides whether to allow its land to be crossed to get to the turbines, which are all to be built on private lands. The project requires right-of-way to build a road two-thirds of a mile long across BLM land. Four overhead transmission lines also cross federal land.
The $200 million project was first developed by Virginia Peak LLC., controlled by Tim Carlson, a former economic development official in Las Vegas. The 44 turbines would produce a peak of 150 megawatts of power.
The development rights were sold about a year ago to Champlin Winds, of Santa Barbara, Calif. The company is headed by Michael Cutbirth, who has 16 years in wind energy development. Champlin gained a $50 million infusion from Good Energies, which plans to invest about $100 million a year in renewable energy in North America.
Nevada’s first wind farm, meanwhile, is being built near Ely and is expected to start production this summer. The Spring Valley project, by Pattern Energy Group, is expected to produce 150 megawatts of power from 66 wind turbines.
In November, Pattern Energy abandoned plans for a wind farm near Sacramento in Yolo County, Calif., because of concerns for bald and golden eagles. The San Francisco company is producing 520 megawatts of wind power from its projects and expects to bring 1,000 megawatts more into production in 2012.
In central Oregon, meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last Friday agreed to consider a permit to allow wind turbines to kill a few golden eagles as long as the wind developers make up for the loss.
In Oregon, West Butte Power would be required to retrofit old power lines that are strung so close together golden eagles can stretch their wings and get electrocuted. The permit would allow three golden eagle deaths over five years.
But Bricky said there are a lot more eagles in the Pah Rahs than near the West Butte project.
“You have to pick and choose where you put turbines,” she said. “There are places less hazardous to eagles than others.”