Endangered piping plovers blend into the background of sandy beaches like Tybee’s, where these small shorebirds are known to visit.
First decimated by the use of their feathers in women’s hats in the late 1800s, plovers have since suffered from having to compete with humans for beach space. Now only 60 or so breeding pairs remain in the smallest of their three known populations.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has identified global warming and wind turbines as emerging threats to these birds.
The paradox of that pair of threats is not lost on Tim Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who is worried that a proposed wind turbine on Tybee would harm plovers that migrate through or winter there.
“No need to point out the irony that one potentially ameliorates the other,” Keyes wrote to the wind turbine’s biggest proponent, Tybee council member Paul Wolff.
Nor is the irony of Keyes’ concerns lost on Wolff, a clean-energy advocate whose home is powered with solar panels. Wolff wants Tybee to lead the way with wind energy and erect the 150-foot, 50-kilowatt turbine as a model for other coastal communities.
Global warming is arguably a bigger threat to wildlife than wind turbines, he said.
“It’s ironic that something that’s going to help lessen the overall impacts on wildlife by transitioning from fossil fuel to renewables is becoming a contentious issue for people tasked with protecting wildlife,” he said.
In the two weeks since a town hall meeting about the wind turbine, debate has continued by email and phone over the danger to piping plovers and other shorebirds, including the red knot, a species that’s soon to be listed as threatened.
The federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has weighed in, indicating the site on Tybee’s north end adjacent to the water treatment facility gives it pause, too.
“Because of the proximity to habitat of species of concern, this does not seem to be a good place to place a wind turbine,” wrote John Doresky, acting field supervisor in a letter to Wolff.
The Georgia Conservancy isn’t keen on the site, either.
“On the energy policy side, we see the positive aspects,” wrote coastal director Clay Mobley. “However, we are concerned about the proposed location on the north end of the island within a migratory bird route.”
The turbine, an Endurance E-3120 model valued at $272,000, has been offered to Tybee as a gift. It’s about the same height as the nearby cell tower, water tower and lighthouse.
The donor corporation offering it prefers to remain unnamed to avoid any negative publicity until Tybee commits to accepting the turbine, said Wolff, who learned of it at the Georgia Environmental Conference in August and immediately began negotiating for Tybee to receive it.
That corporation bought the turbine to install at one of its facilities in Wisconsin. After securing the necessary installation permits, it received complaints from some nearby residents and decided not to install the turbine to avoid adverse publicity. It remains housed it in its original packaging in a warehouse.
Tybee would have to invest an estimated $134,000 in shipping and installation expenses but could save more than $400,000 in electricity costs over the 20-year life of the turbine. Placing the turbine next to the water treatment facility would allowing Tybee to directly power that facility, its single biggest electric bill.
But that site is about a quarter mile from the piping plover’s critical habitat on the north beach.
Neither federal nor state agencies have the authority to stop the project because no permits are needed.
What the agencies have warned, is that if the turbine is erected and endangered birds are harmed by it, that could consitute an illegal “take” under the Endangered Species Act. To avoid that situation, they suggest continued collaboration, including the use of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s voluntary guidelines for wind turbines.
Fish and Wildlife’s Doresky also suggested Tybee create a monitoring plan that documents endangered species harmed or killed by the turbine.
Keyes would prefer to see fall, winter and spring pre-monitoring by trained birders before the turbine is placed.
“You want someone with expertise,” he said. “It may be something that has to be contracted out.”
Preliminary monitoring of the site is already underway, Wolff said. A group of volunteers, including island resident Mallory Pearce, is collecting data on birds’ movements through the water treatment property.
“I’m known as the bird man of Tybee,” said former Tybee councilman Pearce, an ecologist by training who has written and illustrated a field guide to the Lowcountry.
By Monday, Pearce had monitored three times and spotted “only gulls.”
“Most of the time I don’t see anything over the plant,” he said. He’s invited nearby residents to supplement his weekly trips and expects Keyes to join him on occasion.
“My personal opinion is that I’ve never seen shorebirds flying over,” Pearce said. “If we monitor over the years, we’ll have a better idea of that.”
Wolff is willing to back off the site if data supports that action, he said.
“If that were the case, we’d have to abort,” he said. “If we’re convinced of the presence of birds and that’s the way they’re flying, we couldn’t go through with this.”
Simon Mahan of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy doesn’t think a change will be necessary. Mahan has examined the scientific literature on bird deaths related to wind turbines. Most of that research, he said, addresses much larger, utility scale turbines. It doesn’t apply to Tybee’s small turbine.
“It’s a battleship versus a dinghy regarding the environmental impact,” he said.
He believes a better measure of this turbine’s effects is what’s seen with similarly sized communication towers, such as those used for radio, TV and cell phones. Here the research shows that the ones that are least dangerous to birds share traits of the turbine – they’re less than 60 meters tall with a monopole construction.
Keyes acknowledged that a single turbine is less likely to do damage but it still “comes down to siting,” he said.
“If you have an area that congregates birds you’re going to have problems,” he said. “Let’s do monitoring.”
Filling research void
That monitoring could fill the gap in research about birds’ interactions with single, small turbines.
“This is going be the first scientific documentation on the effects of a small-scale wind turbine on wildlife,” Wolff said. “I’ve been scouring the literature, and there’s nothing out there. It’ll be the first one on how one (small) wind turbine situated in close proximity to critical habitat affects birds.”
The turbine is on the City Council’s agenda for Feb. 27. Council would need to vote both on accepting the gift and pursuing low-cost financing for the installation from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority.
A best-case scenario puts the turbine in place in summer or fall, Wolff said, allowing at least six months of monitoring beforehand.
If it is placed on the north end, there are other possible strategies to reduce bird strikes, including bird-friendly lighting and high-contrast striping on the blades to make them easier for birds to see. There’s also the possibility of shutting down the turbine during migration.
Keyes supports any mitigation while remaining skeptical of the chosen site.
“If Tybee goes ahead and votes to place the turbine at the north end – or somewhere else for that matter – I would of course still be willing to work to help mitigate any bird strike risk (from blade patterns, to weather/season parameters),” Keyes wrote in an email. “This fact shouldn’t be interpreted as me supporting the siting of a turbine at the north end.”
Two other city-owned properties are large enough to accommodate the turbine. Jaycee Park was rejected in part because the wind there would be obstructed by the tall homes of Officer’s Row. Memorial Park was set aside after several nearby neighbors indicated they would object.
“Ultimately it’s going be up to the city where they want put this thing,” Mahan said. “Either further away from people and in a less than ideal spot for birds or closer to people so they can see it and it would be a better spot for birds.”
If Tybee rejects it, the wind turbine won’t go to waste, Mahan said.
“We know quite a few places the would love to have this thing,” he said. But he sees the symbolic importance of Tybee, which passed a resolution supporting wind power in 2012.
“Tybee has been a leader in wind,” he said. “And if offshore wind is developed, Tybee will be at the forefront of the movie theater, so to speak; they’ll get to see them best. This turbine would be important to get folks acclimated to wind energy and show that the angst against (turbines) is not so well founded.”
Keyes is equally concerned that the wrong spot could have lasting negative consequences.
“I hate to be in this position,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of alternative power, and I’m concerned about climate change. We’re living on a coast where we’ve already documented a foot of sea level rise, but let’s do right this right if it’s the first on the coast. If it does cause problems for birds, that would be a pretty big black eye for wind turbines on the coast.”
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