A “wind farm” proposed on the edge of the Everglades passed a key hurdle Thursday, despite concerns about tall, spinning blades killing endangered birds.
The Palm Beach County Zoning Commission voted in favor of erecting more than 100 wind-catching turbines on western sugar cane fields to produce electricity.
The County Commission on March 22 gets the final say on development approvals needed to build what would be Florida’s first commercial wind farm.
The 500-foot-tall turbines and their fast-spinning blades offer a pollution-free alternative energy source. But they also threaten to kill birds that flock to the nearby Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge – the northern reach of the Everglades.
The risk to endangered wood storks and Everglades snail kites, as well as bald eagles and flocks of other birds flying over western Palm Beach County prompted the Sierra Club, Audubon of Florida and other environmental advocates that normally support alternative energy to oppose the wind farm.
“It has to be in the right place,” said Jane Graham of Audubon. Building the wind farm without more study of the effect on Everglades birds “equates to gambling with the future of this world class treasure,” she said.
But zoning commissioners decided that the chance to encourage a new alternative energy source outweighed environmental concerns about the Sugarland Farms proposal.
“We need more wind (energy) throughout our country and less fossil fuels,” Zoning Commission Chairwoman Sherry Hyman said Thursday.
The Missouri-based Wind Capital Group, developers of the proposed alternative energy facility, has agreed to explore using radar and other ways to try to minimize bird deaths.
“This is the wave of the future,” project consultant George Gentile said. “It’s good for the environment, the economy and our future.”
Sugarland Wind would include at least 114 wind turbines spread across 13,000 acres of farmland producing 200 mega watts of electricity.
That’s enough to power 60,000 South Florida homes. That could offset the production of 320,000 tons of polluting carbon emissions a year that come from producing the same amount of electricity at fossil-fuel-driven power plants.
Project backers say they would be making a $350 million construction investment. It would also mean creating up to 300 temporary construction jobs and about 20 permanent jobs in struggling Glades communities, where unemployment hovers between 20 and 40 percent.
The environmental group Clean Water Action backs the wind farm, despite the bird concerns.
“Investment in truly clean energy means more protection … for our environment,” said Cara Capp, of Clean Water Action.
Even if the County Commission on March 22 signs off on the wind farm proposal, Sugarland Farms would still need federal and state environmental permits to move forward.
Wind farm developers project about three to four birds per tower per year to die, which is in line with the national average. That would be nearly 500 birds killed a year by Sugarland’s towers, an estimate that environmental groups say is too low for the area between bird havens like Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.