NEAR RIO GRANDE CITY – Two wind power projects will begin spinning electricity from about 30 miles north of Rio Grande City, Duke Energy Renewables announced last month.
The windmills will generate power without emitting harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases, and construction will temporarily boost the Starr County economy.
But a local bird expert is questioning the long term effect they will have on the bird and bat population in South Texas.
The projects, called Los Vientos III and IV, will produce 200 megawatts of emissions-free electricity, enough to power 120,000 homes, according to a news release by Duke Energy Renewables. The company is a developer of 15 wind and 15 solar energy generation projects for customers in the United States, including two in Willacy and Cameron Counties.
Austin Energy will purchase the energy generated under two 25-year agreements. The company is one of the nation’s largest publically owned electric utilities and serves a population of almost one million in Travis County and Williamson County.
Approximately 25 percent of the electricity the company generates comes from wind power. The company also purchases the wind power from the projects in Willacy and Cameron Counties.
Rose Benavidez, the president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, worked closely with Duke Energy Renewables to bring them down to Starr County. The construction will create 300-400 new jobs in the county for a two year period as part of phase one, and Benavidez is “actively working on the company on what could be phase two,” she said.
Additionally, the company is leasing land from ranch owners outside the city limits.
“Many land owners are struggling because of the drought and this will certainly help them (financially),” Benavidez said. “It will also provide a trickledown effect to our economy when the engineers visit and use our hotels and eat at our restaurants during the construction.
“We wanted to create jobs for people who need them… This is big news for Starr County.”
Starr County was chosen as the permanent location for these windmills because of the strong winds in the Rio Grande Valley, said Tammie McGee, the communications manager for Duke Energy Renewables.
“We identified a pattern in South Texas: the wind blows the strongest during the afternoon hours, in contrast to the other wind projects in West Texas,” said McGee said. “The gulf wind coming in is a phenomenon.”
Jim Chapman, president of the birding and conservation organization called Frontera Audubon Society, said he believes the windmills will negatively affect the bird populations in the Valley.
Wind turbines are estimated to kill anywhere from 10,000 – 40,000 birds per year, which is not nearly as much as the amount of birds vehicles kill per year, predicated to range between 60 to 80 million, according to information provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
However, Chapman said he believes the Rio Grande Valley is unique for bird populations because it’s a bird migration corridor, which could make its circumstances more dire for bird and bat populations.
“This area acts as a funnel for bird migration and has a large population of bats too,” he said. “I’m more worried about bats being affected. There was a private landowner in Los Fresnos that had a wind turbine and I talked to him and asked him whether he found dead birds on his property and he said, ‘No. But every morning I find dead bats.’”
Chapman said to his knowledge, there was no independent research conducted in the Valley specifically in regards to how windmills affect birds and bats.
“The windmills are built on private land, which makes it more difficult,” he said. “But there’s no (state) requirement to analyze the impact of the turbines.”
McGee said that Duke Energy Renewables conducted its own studies to analyze the effects it would have on Starr County wildlife.
“There were no federal listed species on sight,” McGee said later in an emailed statement. “We expect any impact from the wind projects to be minimal. We strive to protect wildlife and the environment, and we will continue to closely monitor bird activity throughout construction.”
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