Wind power is now the second largest contributor to “green” energy generation in California, with 75,000 Gigawatts produced to date. California is on track to meet its ambitious target for a 33% renewable portfolio by 2020, according to Karen Douglas, Chairman of the California Energy Commission. (CEC). But at what cost to wildlife and the environment?
Balancing environmental concerns vs. the quest to build mega-energy projects to address climate change is a key challenge facing the wind industry–and a hot topic during a panel titled “Building WInd in the West: Overcoming Siting Issues” at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) conference in San Diego last week.
Douglas’ statement was read by a moderator, due to a last-minute conflict in Sacramento that prevented her attendance. Douglas also addressed the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) covering 22 million acres, calling for streamlining of permits to enable development of energy projects including 200,000 to 350,000 acres in San Diego and Imperial Counties.
The DRECP’s own independent science council, however, concluded in August that the plan was not scientifically sound. Conservationists have voiced concerns over serious impacts on sensitive species such as desert tortoises and bighorn sheep.
The CEC chair acknowledged challenges to the site selection for wind energy projects, particularly Golden Eagles. Thousands of the endangered birds have been killed by wind turbines at the Altamont Pass wind facility alone. She cited a need for more cooperation among federal agencies and said substantial funds have been allocated to develop protocols to study baseline populations.
An individual who kills an eagle would face felony charges. But for wind developers, the U.S. Department of the Interior has begun issuing incidental “take” permits allowing the inadvertent killing of specified numbers of the endangered birds with no penalties. (Take permits may be issued at Tule Wind and potentially, other wind projects in East County near active eagle nests or foraging grounds.)
Anne Mudge of Cox, Castle and Nicholson has been involved in siting issues for a decade. Mudge replaced another speaker ill with the flu. She indicated that local governments tend to be more nimble than the federal government in approving projects, motivated by issues such as jobs.
She advised wind industry officials to prepare joint documents to comply with both state and federal laws including NEPA and CEQA. That’s easier said than done, however, and disconnects in the proceses can be headaches for developers. (NEPA violations were among the issues cited in a lawsuit filed by the Desert Protective Council over the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility.
Mudge advised industry representatives present that there are advantages of doing projects on private lands instead of public lands—since there is a higher chance of litigation over public lands and tribal lands. Case in point: the Ocotillo project on federal Bureau of Land Management property has thus far resulted in at least five lawsuits filed by environmental , tribal, and resident groups.
Federal lands will have more scrutiny, she advised. However for projects on federal lands, local jurisdictions can enforce health, safety and grading issues but cannot issue use permits.
Avian radar intended to reduce bird kills “is not proven” Mudge stated. That’s in conflict to claims made by wind developers pitching avian radar as a panacea to minimize bird kills at wind projects proposed in San Diego’s East County as well as the Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo project recently built in Imperial Valley, which includes an avian radar system. Other deterrent technologies are also not only unproven but annoying to neighbors, such as loud sounds including cannons.
Mudge recommended changing project layouts if near eagle nests and advised a “carcass management plan” not only for eagles, but other species. She also emphasized that wind developers should avoid creating shelter for small mammals on which eagles feed—a statement that makes clear the impact on wildlife habitat by stripping bare vast acreage is both intentional and broader than some in the industry have acknowledged. Bird counts should last 60 minutes and should be done seasonally and at different times of day.
Kim Delfino with Defenders of the Earth said the relationship between environmentalists and the wind industry does not have to be adversorial, since we need renewable energy to address climate change. But she added, “We also need to defend the land.” She emphasized that “our mutual goal is responsible wind energy development,” adding that climate change itself is having huge impacts on wildlife.
That said, she acknowledged real problems with wind power and wildlife, notably collisions and barotrauma to birds and bats. Other problems are avoidance of the area by wildlife, habitat fragmentation, reducing breeding density and behavior changes.
Lack of knowledge is the biggest problem. At this time “we really do not know what is going on with the Golden Eagles,” she acknowledged. More data is also needed on migratory bird and bat pathways, locations where bats hibernate, Golden Eagle populations and viability, California condor locations and movement, and avian mortality in current bird farms. She advises targeted areas of lowest potential for harm.
She also indicated “hard exclusion areas” for condors and eagles should be taken into account in the Desert Renewable Conservation Plan and added that while takes of eagles are already allowed, the risk to condors is also significant.
Defline also discussed impacts on desert tortoises and ravens, advising using existing transmission lines where possible to minimize impacts.
Other issues include vibration, noise and electromagnetic issues. Delfino later told ECM that fire is also an impact that was in her notes to discuss, but time ran short.
Michael Almone, Air Force Deputy Civil Engineer, spoke from a Department of Defense perspective. The DOD operates 28 million acres, much of which has been eyed for renewable energy development. But some installations and training ranges in the west are used for research of future weapons systems and training that includes flying 150 feet above the ground.
While photovoltaic has minimal effects on air operations, wind has significant impacts on aircraft radars as well as ground-based radars. Wind turbines also are physical obstructions on the ground. While technological solutions are beginning to emerge to some radar issues, some areas in the west will be next to impossible to get permits for wind energy, Almone indicated.
The Air Force spokesman then provided tips to the wind industry on how to avoid having their documents disclosed under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the public. He advised attendees to submit paperwork over email to him, to also to make sure it is marked as “business confidential” so that an exclusion for FOIA can be made.