Environmentalists are facing a conundrum: To fight green energy projects that they see as detrimental to their cause or to work with the developers and the authorities to minimize damages. The U.S. Department of Interior has made some suggestions that it thinks will help alleviate bird deaths associated with wind energy.
The Obama administration has placed a high value on wind energy, as well as other sustainable fuels. But it has run into conflicts when it has tried to permit such projects that affect rare birds and other wildlife. Through this latest initiative, the administration is working with all stakeholders to locate from the start those places in which there would be potentially deal-killing conflicts.
Bird and wildlife advocates are split. Most are satisfied with the proposals that have been in the making for three years, noting that their interests will get a seat at the table as the rules progress further. The rest are dissatisfied that the issuance is only “voluntary,” meaning that the litigation will still flow. Among the groups that discussed the matter with officials from the federal government are the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy and the Defenders of Wildlife.
“These first-ever federal guidelines are a game-changer and a big win for both wildlife and clean energy,” says David Yarnold, chief executive of the Audubon society. “By collaborating with conservationists instead of slugging it out, the wind power industry gains vital support to expand and create jobs, and wildlife gets the protection crucial for survival.”
The guidelines, which have taken effect, provide a structured and scientific approach for developers and the associated regulators to find viable wind sites, according to the Interior Department. Their mutual goal is to assess, mitigate and monitor any adverse effects wind power projects might have on wildlife and their habitat. The agency is emphasizing the voluntary rules do not encroach on the federal laws that now exists: Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Balks and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The American Wind Energy Association says that it has 47,000 megawatts of installed capacity. Public comments it has filed with the Interior Department say that its members have surpassed the requirements under current law, all to minimize the effect its turbines have on birds and their habitat.
“The industry is not interested in, and has never asked for, a free pass when it comes to wildlife,” says the document. “In fact, it has taken quite the opposite tack.”
The wind group has said, in previous filings, that less than 1 percent of all human-caused eagle deaths are the result of wind turbines. More than half of all accidents involving birds, generally, are because they fly into power lines. One news story cites a 2008 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stat that 440,000 bird deaths occur each year because of wind farms – something that wind energy advocates say is inflated and difficult to calculate.
Where’s all this playing out? Conservation groups have told California authorities that a proposed wind project there by NextEra Energy would kill off rare birds, including Golden Eagles and California condors. They want the turbines to be relocated and have filed a legal challenge asking for an environmental review.
Among the things they are asking for are radars that would be able to detect such rare species before they would collide with the massive turbines. The wildlife advocates say that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees with it that avian fatalities are a real concern with this NextEra proposal.
“There’s plenty of room in the state for both wind projects and the California condor to thrive,” says Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But if condors and wind turbines are going to coexist, those turbines need to be sited carefully and measures have to be taken to minimize the risk that condors will be killed. Unfortunately, this project fails to do that.”
Relocating a massive wind or solar project is not that simple, however. Such facilities are typically built on the outskirts where large plots of land exists and where the wind and the sun can be easily captured. Wind speeds need to average 14.7 miles per hour as well as be able to interconnect with transmission systems. Solar regions, meanwhile, must have abundant sunshine and also have the same ability to connect with the transmission grid.
Green energy faces a number obstacles, not the least of which is coming from their own quarters. The Interior Department’s proposal seeks to minimize the conflict and if it is effective, it will be a positive step forward for wind and solar power.