Clean energy, or bird killers?
Wind farms like the three proposed to be built this year in Stearns County could represent a future of renewable energy. But they also can pose a hazard to wildlife, including migratory birds and bats.
It’s a problem that has caused a rift between environmental groups and delayed approval of some wind projects, including one in southern Minnesota.
New voluntary standards released last month by the Obama administration are expected to help guide developers and regulators as they decide where to place wind turbines to avoid bird and bat deaths as much as possible. The standards were endorsed by the American Wind Energy Association and several conservation organizations.
“We think any responsible developer of wind is going to voluntarily agree to abide by the guidelines,” said Don Arnosti, policy director for the Minnesota chapter of the Audubon Society.
Developers of the three wind farms proposed for construction near Paynesville and Sauk Centre already have studied the potential impact to birds and bats and how to reduce deaths.
Some environmental groups say the voluntary standards don’t go far enough to protect birds from collisions with wind towers. They say rules are needed to guarantee wind farms aren’t built in areas where they pose a threat to birds.
“The new wind guidelines have no teeth in them,” said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign director for the American Bird Conservancy, a national advocacy group. “They are completely voluntary and therefore, the developers make all the decisions about whether to go forward on a project.”
1 million a year?
Night-migrating songbirds and raptors such as bald and golden eagles are most at risk of colliding with wind turbines. The exact number of birds killed every year by wind turbines isn’t known, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently estimated the number at 100,000 to 440,000.
As the number of wind farms nationwide continues to grow toward a goal of providing 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030, the American Bird Conservancy estimates that the number of bird deaths could reach 1 million per year.
In comparison, the number of birds killed by power lines is estimated at 10 million to 150 million per year, while as many as 1 billion are killed annually in collisions with glass buildings.
The guidelines released March 23 by the U.S. Department of Interior use a tiered approach to identify sites with low risk to wildlife and to help developers monitor and mitigate any adverse effects of wind energy projects. The guidelines were developed over five years by an advisory committee that included representatives of the wind energy industry and conservation organizations.
Arnosti believes the standards will help separate wind energy developers into two groups: those that will adhere to the standards and those that won’t. He anticipates regulators such as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will either require developers to follow the guidelines or fast-track projects that do.
“We would very much look for Minnesotans in general and our regulatory body to recognize these guidelines as … best practices for wind farms,” Arnosti said.
The first wind farms in Minnesota were in the southern part of the state, where the risk to birds wasn’t as high, Arnosti said. But companies are looking to western and Central Minnesota, where the Mississippi and other rivers provide flyways for migratory birds, he said.
As in real estate, bird protection is all about “location, location, location,” Arnosti said.
“A difference of 10 miles on the landscape can make a big difference on the bird traffic coming through an area,” he said.
Edina-based Geronimo Wind Energy is proposing to build a 95-megawatt wind farm near Paynesville with as many as 60 turbines, as well as the 42-megawatt Black Oak Wind Farm near Sauk Centre. The company also is working with landowners who formed Getty Wind, a community-based wind project that would be located next to Black Oak. Geronimo Wind Energy President Blake Nixon did not return phone messages requesting an interview.
Geronimo’s biologists completed avian and bat protection plans for the Paynesville and Black Oak-Getty projects. The detailed studies of bird and bat species in the area include plans for how to minimize the wind farm’s impact and monitor bird and bat deaths after the turbines are operating.
The Black Oak and Getty projects lie within the Mississippi River flyway, a region that provides breeding habitat for North American waterfowl and other migratory species.
The 13-week avian study, which began in April 2011, recorded 22,863 birds from 116 species, including bald eagles, trumpeter swans, American white pelicans, common loons, sandhill cranes and marbled godwits. Many of the birds were in or near wildlife management or protection areas. One pair of nesting bald eagles was observed a quarter-mile from the boundaries of the Black Oak project.
In Paynesville, where birds were studied in 2009-2010, biologists detected 18,182 individual birds, including at least 96 species. Among those recorded were bald eagles, American white pelicans and possibly trumpeter swans.
The studies state the developers are committed to minimizing the risk to birds by placing turbines away from flyways and outside of identified flight corridors. Developers also plan to monitor bird or bat deaths after the project is completed.
Whether the new guidelines will play a role in final approval of the wind farms remains unclear.
Because the draft version of the standards has been available for some time, the state Department of Commerce has been urging developers to use them, said Tricia DeBleeckere, senior energy facility planner for the Public Utilities Commission. Most developers are amenable to going through the steps, she said.
However, some conservation groups worry that without mandatory standards, developers who follow the standards will be at a competitive disadvantage.
“There’s no level playing field,” said Fuller with the American Bird Conservancy. She would prefer to see a permitting system that allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approve projects that are sited well and have good plans for operation and monitoring.
For environmentalists, weighing the benefits of renewable energy with the risks to wildlife is a tough call.
Arnosti points out that other types of energy production, such as burning coal, probably kill far more birds than wind turbines due to the mercury and greenhouse gases released.
“We are not standing here saying that no wind turbine should ever kill a bird anywhere,” Arnosti said. “ … We understand that power is necessary for a modern society.”
Linda Peck, a past president of the Central Minnesota Audubon Society, said she thinks it’s wise to use a scientific basis to site wind farms so they don’t cause problems later.
“Every technology has pros and cons,” Peck said. “I just think it’s wise to try to do it the best you can with the least negative impacts to the bigger picture.”