Generating alternative energy on the edge of the Everglades could start with PR power.
“Wind farm” backers are targeting mailboxes and in-boxes alike to try to build support for an alternative-energy project planned in western Palm Beach County.
Pamphlets mailed to thousands of residents across the county, as well as an email lobbying campaign aimed at county commissioners, seek to build support for putting towering wind turbines on sugar cane fields to produce electricity.
With a County Commission vote on the proposal looming next month, the PR campaign is an attempt to counter environmental opposition.
The Sierra Club and Audubon of Florida both oppose the proposal because the 500-foot-tall turbines, with their whirling blades, threaten to kill birds that flock to the Everglades.
The pamphlet mailed to residents doesn’t specifically mention potential bird kills. Instead, they focus on the prospect of construction jobs and the long-term environmental benefits of non-polluting, alternative energy.
The mailer includes detachable, postage-paid postcards voicing support for the project. Residents are being asked to sign the cards and mail them back to the company.
At the same time, county commissioners are getting dozens of emails from across the state supporting the wind farm.
The cookie-cutter emails are coordinated by an on-line organization enlisted to build support for the Sugarland project.
After a heavy dose of publicity about the threats to birds, the mailings and emails are intended to be “early, proactive engagement with the community to [address] any concerns,” wind-farm representative Tony Wyche said.
Sugarland representatives also stepped up lobbying efforts by having one-on-one meetings this week with several county commissioners.
“We are here and we will be in this community for the life of the project,” Wyche said.
Whether the PR push works won’t be known until the wind-farm proposal goes before the County Commission March 22.
“At some point we have to look at other forms of energy, [but] there’s all these other unintended consequences,” Commission Chairwoman Shelley Vana said. “The big question is how does it fit in environmentally?”
Missouri-based Wind Capital Group proposes building “Sugarland Wind” on sugar cane fields beside the Loxahatchatchee National Wildlife Refuge – the northern reaches of the Everglades.
At least 114 wind turbines would be spread across 13,000 acres of farmland that was once part of the Everglades.
Sugarland Wind would be Florida’s first commercial wind farm, producing 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 60,000 homes.
That’s also enough power to offset the production of 320,000 tons of polluting carbon emissions a year that comes from producing that 200 megawatts at fossil-fuel-driven power plants.
It would be a $350 million construction investment, producing 300 temporary construction jobs and about 20 permanent jobs, according to Sugarland.
“It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the environment and it’s good for the energy user,” project director Robin Saiz said.
The main objection facing Sugarland Wind is the bird deaths expected from putting towering, fast-spinning blades between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, two prime destinations for migrating birds, wading birds and birds of prey.
Sugarland backers have said they expect about three to four bird deaths per tower per year, which is in line with the national average. That would be nearly 500 birds killed a year.
But environmental groups dispute that number, saying it’s much too low for an area frequented by birds migrating between North and South America.
The much-publicized bird concerns are a key reason for Sugarland’s direct mailing and email lobbying.
An early test of the PR campaign comes March 1 when the project goes before the Zoning Commission. The County Commission on March 22 gets final say.
“We are a country that is seeking additional means of energy,” County Commissioner Burt Aaronson said. “It’s worked in other areas. … I have to hear all the evidence.”
Letter-writing campaigns for and against development proposals are nothing new. The advent of email amplified that correspondence capability. Using on-line organizations that specialize in getting out a message can multiply that effect even more.
Sugarland Wind is using the group CitizenSpeak, which provides “e-advocacy” patterned afterMoveOn.orgemail campaigns. Groups can use the CitizenSpeak website to set up campaign web pages and write text for mass emails. Those groups then email their members links to the campaign web page. There, CitizenSpeak collects members’ information and sends mass email messages on behalf of the group.
County Commissioner Steven Abrams has received more than 40 emails about the wind-farm proposal and expects that total to climb dramatically before the vote.
For a recent contentious development proposal near Boca Raton, Abrams received more than 600 emails.
“Both sides are going to be heard,” Abrams said. “This is only the beginning.”
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