The Meikle Wind Project has now entered its environmental assessment phase. Recently, representatives from Finavera and the project held an open house here in town, inviting public comment and questions about the latest addition to its 25-year electricity purchase agreements (EPA) with BC Hydro Corporation. The project area is located 20 km from Tumbler Ridge and can be accessed mainly by existing roads, subject to minor upgrades. The company anticipates commercial operations to begin in 2014. When in operation, the wind farm has an expected capacity of 117 MW.
One of the first questions one finds oneself asking about a new wind project is why, if it is a renewable energy source, the project life is expected to be 25 years?
Michael Thompson, B.Sc., MSc., PGeo., SVP Wind Energy explains, “There are two reasons, one is the life of the machinery. A 25-year wind-turbine starts to need a lot of work. And also 25 years from now, the technology will be a lot better than it is today.”
BC Hydro only signed a contract to take electricity for 25 years. “The way the province of BC has it, the only people we can sell electricity to, is BC Hydro,” says Thompson continuing, “Based on what BC Hydro is doing currently with projects is they will come back and say, ‘hey, there’s a project already there, we can negotiate a new contract for another 20 to 25 years’.”
Also, manufacturers and suppliers will only guarantee their products for 20-25 years.
He explains infrastructure is always being updated, like how BC Hydro has recently replaced the electrical equipment in virtually every dam in the province.
A second important part of an environmental assessment is how the company plans to remove all of the necessary trees from the project area. Thompson explains finding a customer to purchase the lumber is a difficult task. He says, “We’ll try and find a customer for the trees that have been cut down. That has been very difficult on previous projects because even though to us we are cutting a lot of trees, 100 hectors, the large plants, it’s just too small, they aren’t interested. When you log an area, usually you select an area of similar trees, we’re not doing that, we’re trying to build a wind farm, and so we tend to find different tree species.”
However Thompson says on previous projects, they have found someone to take the lumber, he says, “It wouldn’t be wasted, which is the provinces technical term for burned.”
The burning of vast mature forests is often the route taken when clearing land for development.
When asked if the company has ever worked with community forests on their projects Thompson says, “We have a project up in Chetwynd and we work with the community forest there, but they tend to hire the same people we would; rather than physically going and cutting the trees. The one in Chetwynd has a West Fraser component.”
He explains they will try and use local contractors and First Nations logging companies.
It’s a bird it’s a plane, no it’s a bat!
Connected to the need to be responsible in terms of tree removal and wind turbines in general is the phenomenon and supposed attraction bats have to wind turbines. Bat expert David Nagorsen of Mammalia Biological Consulting says, “We don’t really have a lot good information as to how bats respond to noise. The sensory disturbance would be noise from blasting in the machinery and the trees falling. Hopefully most of that could be done outside of the mating period. The bats would only be in the project area, roosting in trees in that time period.”
Though they have not found any evidence of permanent roosts in the project area, such as caves or rock outcrops, where a bat could stay for a whole summer, there is evidence of tree roosts. Nagorsen explains, “With tree roosts, there’s been a lot of research done. We know bats, unlike birds, will stay in a tree roost a couple of days, and then they fly to another tree. One bat may use a dozen trees throughout the summer. Those could cover a fairly large area. Even outside the project area. For a bat, to have the survival strategy to have knowledge of a lot of tree roosts would be a really smart strategy,” he continues, “They might use the same tree twice in a year, and they may come back the following year to that tree, they may not. With the sound, even if you were in a tree and being disturbed, you would probably just go find another tree outside the noise area.”
The main concern with wind projects and bats is, as Nagorsen says, “this business of the turbine blade. That is the big issue.”
“It’s been a bit of an unknown until about six or seven years ago when it was discovered. We still don’t really fully understand what is going on, but bats seem to be attracted to the turbines or the rotating blades. We don’t know. They’ve kind of ruled out sound, it doesn’t seem to be sound. And the other interesting thing is that bats are never killed at turbines that aren’t operating. They are never killed at the met towers. They could be attracted to the spinning blades or they might be attracted to the turbines, thinking they are things they can land on.”
When the blade is spinning, the bat just cannot figure out how to avoid the blade, or else, Nagorsen says, “It is actually attracted to the blade. They can see, but they are primarily using sonar. They make these high-pitched echolocation sounds; they use that to detect tiny flying insects, they should be able to detect the blade. It might be something about how it moves, or maybe they can’t judge the speed. So it’s a big unknown at this point.”
The good news from operating wind farms in the region is that bat fatality rates are fairly low, compared to other areas. “Now what seems to be the most effective thing is just to keep the blades from spinning on nights when there are low wind speeds. We know bats are most active on warm nights with very little wind, so if we could just prevent them from spinning on those nights, you can really reduce those fatalities,” Nagorsen says.
So then, you must ask the looming question: what is a bat fatality rate that is of a level of concern? Nagorsen explains everyone is still waiting to find out. “That is the million-dollar question. We are waiting. The Ministry of Environment is producing a set of guidelines; a best management plan for bats and wind energy. We are still waiting to see it, anxiously awaiting them to release it,” says Nagorsen.
He has been waiting for about three years now. Nagorsen shares, “It would be nice to have it released because then we know the ground rules. The power companies would know the ground rules. There seems to be a lot of them stalled for whatever reason, I don’t know why.”
Like finding an arrow in the forest
“Archeology is the hard labour, trench digging part of the environmental process and it’s very location specific. The other environmental disciplines are looking for the type of terrain or habitat for bears or bats or species of plants. They do vegetation mapping, in blocks and plots throughout the project area, to make generalizations about what’s in the area. That works well with the other environmental areas, whereas an arch site, someone either stopped there or they didn’t,” explains Sarah Gamble, one of the archeologists who conducted the archeological assessment for the Meikle project. They found two main sites, both containing chert flakes, which are evidence of someone in the past having stopped to sharpen or make a stone tool. “These are pretty much what we find 99 percent of the time, especially in the foothills in the northeast,” says Gamble.
So how did they find these tiny little pieces of stone in the middle of the forest?
The team found a nice elevated terrace, close to a year-round body of water, about 100 metres from Meikle Creek. Gamble explains, “It is quite labour intensive, so when we get to those sites that we think have potential as an arch site, we’ll get out our shovels and do shovel tests, anywhere from 35 to 40 cm square and you’re digging to the depth you think the most previous glaciation happened. No one was here before about 12,000 years ago that anyone has found.”
So now with the site ready they began to screen dirt or sand through a mesh object and Gamble says, “They just kind of pop out at you. After a while you develop an eye. The biggest thing you have to remember is the landscape has changed. What might be a dense alder brush that is really thick and you hate walking through it today, might have been a really beautiful open pine forest 1,000 years ago.”
This is something the archeologist has to keep in mind; as Gamble says, “that vegetation is very transitory. With the bird cycle and with climate change in the past 12,000 years, there’s been warming periods in the seven to 9,000 year range called the Altithermal period. You do look at the bigger picture.”
For this project the group dug over 1,217 holes. “A lot of holes!” says Gamble, continuing, “but if you have that much area to cover, you have to pick your spots. One to five metres apart usually.”
The second site was on the transmission line. “We are going to fence the site and we are going to keep the poles out of it, reach in and pull out the trees without digging into the dirt to top the trees so they don’t grow into the transmission line,” says Gamble.
Though it is known that a person was at these sites and they were working with tools, without bone, the archeologists cannot carbon date the artifacts. “With stone, if we found an arrow head or some types of knives, they go in style in certain years. You can have a look and have an idea of how old it is. When you just find these stone tool remnants, we have no idea,” explains Gamble.
Though there have been some big finds in the region, Gamble explains why it is so difficult to locate artifacts in the north. “Part of it is people in this area were smaller nomadic tribes, small family unit groups. You find that in colder areas, you don’t find those big gathering areas,” says Gamble continuing, “In these types of areas you have the moose and the deer that are present but you have to follow the different areas where the animals go in the different seasons. You’d move to different areas for medicinal plants or plants for food, people would be moving from the valley bottom to the mountain-top.”
Also, she explains, “You are shooting at something that is moving, so you are looking for something that probably landed somewhere in the forest. We are looking for habitation sites. A village would have dense artifacts, whereas if you have one family sharpening one knife on a nice knoll, chances of finding these artifacts are pretty slim.”
Gamble explains in some situations the plan is just to try and gather as much as you can before the project gets started. “Try to get as much info as you can, usually you know you are leaving artifacts behind, but you get as much as you can to get an idea of what the site was used for. It depends on the type of site and the type of project. On these projects, a wind project, it is usually a lot easier to shift the project to avoid the site, especially in the early stages when the turbine sites are more movable,” says Gamble.
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