In the months before Thurday's vote, Wind Capitol launched a public relations blitz, mailing thousands of brochures about the project to county residents, touting the project.
WEST PALM BEACH – Florida’s first wind farm can be built on 12,900 acres of agricultural land east Belle Glade, Palm Beach County commissioners unanimously agreed Thursday.
The approval came at the urging of Glades officials and union workers who say the project will bring much-needed jobs to the region, where the unemployment rate is as high as 40 percent.
Members of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, pleaded with commissioners to delay the decision, saying more study is needed to determine the project’s effect on migratory birds and bats. Others said flatly that the project would decimate Everglades bird populations.
St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group plans to build a 114-turbine, 200-megawatt wind farm on the land. The project, known as Sugarland Wind, will be located about seven miles east of Belle Glade and three miles west of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
The company will also have to win the support of state and federal officials before the project can rise. If approved, the turbines would produce enough energy to power as many as 60,000 homes.
Company officials said the project will create 250 to 300 jobs during construction. There will be 15 to 20 permanent jobs, they said.
“We all care about endangered species,” Commissioner Burt Aaronson said before Tuesday’s vote. “But we have another endangered species. It is called all of these people who are out of work. It is going to employ people who need employment.”
Aaronson said calls to delay Thursday’s decision would only keep people unemployed.
“These people can’t keep on waiting longer and longer,” he said. “The 200 to 300 jobs that you are going to be supplying during construction mean so much for the people out there.”
Under the proposal, the turbines would stand at least a quarter of a mile from each other. The base of each turbine would be built on less than a tenth of an acre of land.
Lisa Interlandi, of the Everglades Law Center, argued the project is planned in the middle of a major migratory route for birds and bats, including the endangered snail kite. The turbines’ spinning blades could decimate the bird population in the area, she said.
“It is in the heart of the Everglades,” Interlandi told the board. “We aren’t asking you to say no to it forever. We are asking you to put this project on hold. I would ask that you take a step back and let the science come forward first.”
As part of their approval, commissioners said they would require Wind Capital to have a detection system that would shut down the turbines when birds are nearby.
Company officials say each turbine is expected to kill three birds a year. For Sugarland, that would translate to about 350 birds – far less than the number that are killed each year by cars and cats, the company said.
In the months before Thurday’s vote, Wind Capitol launched a public relations blitz, mailing thousands of brochures about the project to county residents, touting the project.
More than three dozen people appeared before the commission to sound off on the project Thursday. Most spoke in favor of the turbines.
Belle Glade Mayor Steven Wilson said that the wind farm could lure other projects to the region, adding that it would create a “sense of pride for the people in the Glades,” because it would be the first in the state.
“It opens the doors for other folks that want to come out and build in the Glades,” Wilson said.
Mike O’Sullivan, senior vice president of development for NextEra Energy Resources, the nation’s largest wind energy producer, told The Palm Beach Post this week that he questioned whether the project is viable.
Wind farms don’t make economic sense in Florida because the wind is too weak and it is cheaper to produce electricity from natural gas, nuclear power and coal, O’Sullivan said.
Robin Saiz, Wind Capitol’s project director, said the company has been measuring the amount of wind in the Glades since December 2009.
That data show that there is “commercial grade wind in Florida,” he told the commission. “Wind is viable in the State of Florida.”
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