The Obama administration is hoping to put a stop to an increasing problem for wind and solar power – feuds with environmental groups that say the projects threaten endangered species or valuable habitat.
But some conservation groups are wary of being burned.
The irony, of course, is that environmentalists are generally big fans of renewable energy, especially compared with greenhouse gas-spewing fossil fuels like coal.
The Interior Department has looked for ways to avoid these green-vs.-green conflicts both by trying to expedite environmental reviews for large solar projects and by creating voluntary guidelines to prevent wind turbines from killing birds.
In one effort, the department set up 17 so-called solar energy zones last year in several Western states that it calls prime locations for utility-scale solar installations. Interior declared the zones free of major conflicts on endangered species, sensitive ecosystems or cultural resources, allowing projects there to skip the initial environmental reviews that take a broad look at regional concerns.
Projects in the zones will still have to conduct site-specific environmental reviews, but Interior’s plan could save solar developers millions of dollars in permitting costs.
But that didn’t soothe all the projects’ critics. David Myers, executive director of the California-based Wildlands Conservancy, says the zones were watered down by adding so-called variance zones, where solar developers can site big projects but haven’t been pre-cleared by Interior.
“The whole goal of the solar energy zones was defeated by variance,” said Myers, whose group has gone to court against several big solar projects on California public land. “The whole object of the solar energy zones was to shepherd these projects into areas with the least amount of conflicts. But then at the ninth hour, they added over 20 million acres of variance that are open for solar prospecting.”
The zones have also drawn skepticism from some in the industry who say the savings offered by waiving the initial surveys might not outweigh the costs of complying with the regulations on federal lands.
The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment before press time.
The Solar Energy Industries Association says it knows of at least two applications being made for projects within zones in Colorado plus one within a zone-like area in Arizona.
It’s still too soon to tell whether the zones will help boost solar power in a way that satisfies conservationists, observers say. And Myers said the “solar gold rush” has waned somewhat, adding that it was driven largely by the unprecedented federal support – both financial and political – the industry received during President Barack Obama’s first term.
“I think there was just an environment-be-damned philosophy by the administration to get some initial projects on track, and they’ve got those initial projects on track,” Myers said.
Interior also finished voluntary guidelines in March 2012 that it says will greatly reduce the risk of bird and bat deaths in wind turbines. Birds have fallen victim to wind projects across the country, although the industry says modern projects have greatly lessened the problem by using slow-spinning blades and designs that discourage nesting.
The guidelines are not a get-out-of-jail-free card, Interior officials said, but could help convince a judge that developers considered avian concerns when siting a project.
Early signs are good that the guidelines will effectively help developers, said John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association.
“The guidelines themselves have helped with people identifying problematic areas and staying away from them, as well as addressing issues that develop on-site,” Anderson said. “Every indication is they are working; people are using them; the consultations with the service have increased; and there’s been a lot of collaboration between the industry and the conservation community.”
Anderson added that while all energy sources come with costs, the wind industry is confident it stacks up best against coal and other fossil fuels.
“Until you look at the cumulative effects of every type of energy and view those in context with wind energy, it’s difficult to understand how impactful those are and how low the impacts of wind are,” he said. “There is no free ride.”
But the American Bird Conservancy says the conflicts are continuing and that the guidelines aren’t helping.
“We don’t see any signs that the voluntary guidelines are working to avoid conflicts with birds,” said Kelly Fuller, the wind campaign coordinator at the conservancy, which often opposes projects it calls a threat to eagles and other endangered species.
She cited several large projects the group says pose a threat to wildlife – including the mammoth, 3-gigawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm planned for Wyoming, which the Obama administration has championed. Those problematic projects, Fuller said, haven’t shown any sign of moving turbines to areas where they might have less impact.
“We would much rather be sitting here reporting to you that a year out, the system is effective, but we’re seeing no signs of it, and we’re seeing no signs that it’s going to be effective,” Fuller said.
The conservancy’s request to Interior to make the guidelines mandatory was shot down, the group said.
Fuller said the conservancy is also concerned by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to lengthen eagle “take” permits – allowing a project to kill or injure a certain number of birds – from five years to 30 years.
The conflicts are bound to grow as renewable projects spread, some environmental advocates say.
“Certainly, there’s going to be a lot more wind farms than there have been historically,” ABC spokesman Bob Johns said. “And the problem is that we have seen no reason to believe that areas of conflict are being avoided – in fact, quite the opposite. They’re walking right into it, leading with their chin on some of these.”
AWEA’s Anderson said his industry has been “proactive” in addressing the problem, pointing to its involvement in developing the guidelines. He added that wind turbines are hardly the biggest threat to birds, noting recent studies that say many millions more birds are killed in the U.S. each year by house cats and by flying into buildings.
“Why exactly is not more being done to focus on impacts of other sources of mortalities for birds when wind has already demonstrated a willingness to do the right thing?” he said.
The conflicts cheer some critics of wind or solar power – for instance, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) frequently calls turbines “Cuisinarts in the sky.”
Other Republicans, meanwhile, have wondered why the Justice Department has prosecuted bird deaths caused by oil and gas drillers under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – a practice that predates the Obama administration – but hasn’t taken any wind projects to court. Mitt Romney even brought up the issue during a presidential debate last fall.
There are some indications federal agencies might soon take action against wind projects that injure or kill birds, though. In March, the FWS announced it is seeking public input as it investigates the death of a golden eagle at a California wind farm.