A commercial “wind farm” – the first in the state – can spring from sugar cane fields on the edge of the Everglades, despite concerns about killing endangered birds, Palm Beach County commissioners have decided.
The County Commission determined in its meeting on Thursday that the benefits of encouraging nonpolluting, alternative energy production in western Palm Beach County outweighed the threat to birds posed by whirling blades atop Statue of Liberty-sized wind turbines.
In addition to encouraging “green” energy, the wind farm would bring hundreds of construction jobs in Glades communities plagued with high unemployment and produce enough power for 60,000 South Florida homes.
“All these people out of work are endangered species too,” County Commissioner Burt Aaronson said. “We have an opportunity … It’s going to employ people.”
Backers of the Sugarland Wind proposal contend that their more than 100 wind-catching turbines can produce electricity that offers a “green” alternative to power plants that rely on polluting fossil fuels.
But many environmental advocates oppose putting 500-foot-tall in an area that threatens migrating flocks as well as endangered birds such as wood storks and Everglades snail kites.
The Sierra Club and Audubon of Florida, which typically support alternative energy, opposed allowing the wind farm, which will be just 3 miles from the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge at the northern reaches of the Everglades.
“Clean energy is not green energy if it kills birds,” said Rebekah Gibble, a biologist at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. “Is the risk really worth the benefit?”
The Missouri-based Wind Capital Group plans to build at least 114 wind turbines spread across 13,000 acres of farmland. The turbines would produce 200 megawatts of electricity that would be sold to Florida energy providers, according to Sugarland Wind.
That could offset the production of 320,000 tons of polluting carbon emissions a year that come from generating the same amount of electricity at fossil-fuel-driven power plants, according to Sugarland Wind.
“A clean, renewable energy project that uses no water and produces no carbon emissions,” said project director Robin Saiz describing the Sugarland Wind proposal.
Building plans call for making a $350 million construction investment in western Palm Beach County.
Wind farm planners project that their turbines will kill three to four birds per turbine per year, which mirrors the national average. That would mean killing nearly 500 birds per year at Sugarland Wind.
But environmental groups contend that bird kill projections are too low for towers that are to be positioned between bird havens such as Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Audubon and the Sierra Club called for at least three years of bird studies before allowing wind farm construction.
“We are just very concerned that wind farms [are] built in the right place,” said Lisa Interlandi, of the Everglades Law Center, who represents the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. “It is the heart of the Everglades.”
Sugarland Wind backers project they will create up to 300 temporary construction jobs and about 20 permanent jobs near struggling Glades communities, where unemployment hovers between 20 and 40 percent.
Glades community leaders, agricultural representatives and county business groups backed the wind farm proposal as a way to provide jobs, encourage a new industry and boost business investment.
“Some people are talking about birds in Belle Glade [who] don’t even know where Belle Glade is,” said Desmond Harriet, of the Glades Area Ministerial Association.
The County Commission required Sugarland Wind to include bird-detecting radar or some other safeguard that can help avoid bird or bat deaths by turning off the spinning rotors when large numbers of birds or bats approach.
Wind farm backers estimate that automobiles in Palm Beach County kill more birds in a couple of days than their towers would kill in a year. Plus the threat of polluting power plants worsening climate change poses more of a long term risk to birds than a wind farm, according to Sugarland Wind.
The company still needs state and federal environmental permits to proceed. Getting those permits could take more than a year.
After decades of Florida draining the Everglades for farming and development, erecting 500-foot-tall wind turbines is one more threat that birds shouldn’t have to face, according to environmental opponents to the wind farm.
“I don’t think we have the right as human beings to usurp not only the land but the sky,” said Rosa Durando, of Audubon.