A new study pinpoints for the first time thousands of square miles of already disturbed land across the Northern Great Plains where wind turbines could be sited to produce enough electricity to power tens of millions of homes without significantly affecting wildlife habitat.
The peer-reviewed study published this month in the journal PLoS ONE and led by researchers at the Nature Conservancy found that siting wind development on mostly cropland and other disturbed sites could produce more than 1 million megawatts of electricity. That’s more than four times the amount of electricity needed to meet an Energy Department goal for wind power to provide 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030.
The study authors hope the wind industry and regulators across the Northern Great Plains study area – Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, as well as southern Alberta and Saskatchewan – will use the study and the maps of already disturbed areas to site wind projects away from greater sage grouse habitat and pathways for whooping cranes, golden eagles and other sensitive avian species
“We think this report is positive,” said Joe Fargione, a Minneapolis-based scientist with the Nature Conservancy and the study’s chief author. “Individual developers can use this to identify areas that are easier to develop from a wildlife conflict standpoint, and we’re hoping individual developers will use this immediately to help inform their siting decisions.”
The study, however, found that 70 percent of the proposed projects currently under consideration in the five states and two Canadian provinces are outside the identified disturbed areas. And only about one-third of existing wind turbines in operation in the study area today are within the low-impact areas identified by the Nature Conservancy.
There are a number of reasons for this, according to the study, such as the fact that the locations for many of the proposed wind projects were chosen because of the site’s proximity to electricity transmission lines and other necessary infrastructure.
But the study also says there are not enough incentives in place to motivate developers to locate in areas with low wildlife impact, “suggesting that the current regulatory framework is generally insufficient to ensure low-impact wind development.”
John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), said the latest study contains useful information that wind developers could use when siting projects. But he said the study’s implication that projects outside the already disturbed areas will have an impact on wildlife is too broad and not supported by the evidence presented in the study.
“While ideally you’d want to direct development to previously disturbed areas, that does not mean there won’t be wildlife impacts at those locations,” Anderson said. “In some situations there may be lower impacts if there are no species of habitat concern going into a greenfield site. Just because the land is disturbed doesn’t mean there’s no stopover for migratory species or a wildlife corridor. There needs to be more of an analysis than just saying because a site is disturbed by some other activity, it is far and away the place to direct development.”
But the study has once again raised the issue of federal oversight of the wind power industry.
The Fish and Wildlife Service this spring finalized voluntary federal guidelines developed over five years aimed at siting and operating wind farms in ways that minimize impacts to birds, bats and wildlife habitat.
The guidelines, which took effect in March, encourage wind developers to consult with FWS as early as possible to allow biologists to assess a project’s potential impacts. They call for developers to work with the agency to analyze potential project effects on migratory birds, bats, eagles and other species from collisions with turbines; habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation; wildlife displacement and behavioral changes; and increased predators and invasive plants (Greenwire, March 23).
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has called the guidelines – developed by an FWS advisory committee that included industry officials, conservation leaders, representatives of American Indian tribes, and federal and state regulators – a common-sense road map for steering wind projects away from places where they would have an outsized impact on wildlife and providing developers certainty and flexibility.
But the Nature Conservancy study, without naming the new federal guidelines, concluded, “New policies and approaches are needed to guide wind energy development to low impact areas.”
Voluntary guidelines vs. regs
Fargione declined to address whether federal and state regulators should be responsible for implementing policies that provide wind developers with the incentive to site their projects in low-impact areas, although the study notes that it’s “unlikely, for political reasons,” that new regulations in the region that restrict development on private land will be implemented “based on wildlife concerns.”
But as it stands, “conscientious developers who avoid a site that has substantial wildlife impacts may be at a competitive disadvantage” because there’s nothing stopping another developer from proposing a project on that site, according to the study.
“Consequently, relying on individual developers to voluntarily improve siting practices is unlikely to achieve desired conservation outcomes, because sensitive areas avoided by one project can be easily impacted by subsequent development,” the study added.
Fargione said the Obama administration could help matters by investing in expanded electricity transmission capacity near the low-impact areas. “That will in turn guide and influence the siting of new wind projects to be close to that new transmission,” he said.
But critics of federal oversight of the wind power industry say the study bolsters their argument that ironclad regulations of the industry are needed and that voluntary guidelines are not enough to protect wildlife.
“This study highlights one of our biggest concerns about voluntary wind power guidelines. We have seen no evidence that the industry makes voluntary siting or operating decisions that show an acceptable level of concern for birds or other wildlife,” said Robert Johns, a spokesman with the American Bird Conservancy, the nation’s leading bird conservation group.
“With inadequate federal standards, the wind industry typically does not provide enough protection for birds – and there is no way with a voluntary approach to require them to do so,” Johns added. “The solution, as we said to the Department of the Interior when we petitioned them in December, is to regulate the industry.”
Mark Salvo, director of the WildEarth Guardians’ Sagebrush Sea Campaign, said he agrees, adding that the Bureau of Land Management must take the lead by including wind project siting requirements in the new national greater sage grouse policy under development.
The “National Greater Sage Grouse Planning Strategy,” which will cover the 47 million acres of grouse habitat under federal control in 10 western states, is expected to be finalized in late 2014.
“Unfortunately, the authors [of the study] are correct – most proposed wind energy development is within important sage-grouse habitat, and there are currently only ‘guidelines’ for developing wind energy in sage-grouse range,” Salvo said. “We know what sage grouse need to persist; we know where to put wind development to avoid sage grouse and other sensitive species. Let’s not be stupid about this.”
Anderson, the AWEA director of siting policy, said he agrees with the study’s conclusion that “there needs to be a balanced playing field and an incentive-based approach to direct developers to areas of lower [habitat] concern.”
But he said that the attacks on the FWS guidelines are “disingenuous” and that claims that the industry is not following them are unwarranted.
He noted that AWEA and 40 wind power companies in May sent a letter to Salazar pledging to adhere to the guidelines and that in the letter AWEA committed “to training its members on the Guidelines and urging adherence to them” (E&ENews PM, May 16).
“They’ve only been out for several months. Let’s give it a couple years and see whether or not the industry is following them,” he said. “To say now that prior to the guidelines even being implemented that wind developers were not using them is very disingenuous.”
The debate over wind farm siting and wildlife impacts has become a hot issue as the wind power industry has dramatically expanded in the past three years. Through the first three months of 2012, operating wind farms have the capacity to produce more than 48,000 MW of electricity, according to AWEA statistics.
The Obama administration has set a goal for wind farms to supply 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs – an estimated 241,000 MW – by 2030. Meeting that goal will require tens of thousands of additional turbines to be sited on both public and private lands as well as offshore.
Conflicts with wind farm siting and wildlife impacts have already interfered with wind development in the Northern Great Plains. Xcel Energy Inc. last year scrapped a $400 million wind farm project in southeast North Dakota after FWS raised questions about the 100-turbine project’s potential adverse impacts on two federally protected birds – the whooping crane and piping plover (Land Letter, April 7, 2011).
And this spring BLM announced it will delay by two years making a final decision whether to approve the China Mountain Wind Project, which proposes to string 170 wind power turbines across nearly 30,000 acres of mostly federal land within prime sage grouse habitat in southeast Idaho and northern Nevada, so that it can incorporate new regulations designed to preserve the bird’s dwindling habitat (E&ENews PM, March 9).
The latest Nature Conservancy study follows an April 2011 study by the conservancy that estimated there are 170 million acres of already disturbed land in 31 states where as much as 3.5 million MW of electricity – enough to power every home in America – could be developed (Land Letter, April 14, 2011).
That study, which was also published in the journal PLoS ONE, did not pinpoint specific sites where wind farms should be built; the latest study does.
The new study, which also included a researcher with the World Wildlife Fund, identified more than 170,000 square miles of disturbed lands in the five states and two Canadian provinces.
The prime area includes almost all of eastern Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, as well as large chunks of east and southeast Wyoming and north and northeast Montana.
Wind farms on the disturbed sites in just these five states could produce an estimated 828,000 MW of electricity – enough to power nearly 290 million homes.
The Nature Conservancy study identified these sites using a federal multiagency database measuring land-cover patterns that identified areas of high- and low-intensity development, and could differentiate among oil and gas fields, cultivated crops, and hay and pasture lands. It then parsed down these areas by selecting regions with good wind power potential, then trimmed the list even more by eliminating disturbed lands near state-level wildlife priority areas, such as core sage grouse breeding areas and key habitat for big game, waterfowl and other migratory birds.
Most of the already disturbed lands identified as suitable for wind development – 78 percent – are croplands.
Agricultural land is suitable for wind farms because the turbines can coexist with active croplands, and farmers generally love the annual lease payments, Fargione said.
“In places where extensive wind development may conflict with the preservation of large intact landscapes and the wildlife that depend upon them, strategies that can balance the needs of development and conservation are required,” the study said. “Targeting wind energy development to areas with low impacts to wildlife can help society simultaneously achieve goals for clean renewable energy production and wildlife conservation.”