The Pennsylvania General Assembly’s nonpartisan research organization has a year to produce a comprehensive report on the impact of wind farms on the state’s landscape, wildlife and electric grid.
The state House of Representatives directed the Joint State Government Commission to conduct the study with a vote of 181-11 this month.
Legislators instructed the commission to cover certain basic details, including who owns wind turbines in Pennsylvania, how many there are, which agencies oversee them and how they are regulated.
The report also must include touchier subjects, like comparisons between wind and other energy sources – such as coal, oil, gas and nuclear – in terms of government subsidies and environmental impacts on wildlife and the landscape. It must address wind turbines’ effect on the electric grid and wind energy’s progress in relation to the state’s mandated minimum share of alternative energy in electricity sales.
A wind company representative said the industry is “willing and happy” to help the legislature compare the costs and benefits of all of the state’s energy resources, but there’s concern that the resolution’s language seems to indicate the study is already biased against wind.
“If it is a true and proper study against other energy sources, absolutely I think wind will come out looking very favorable,” said Michael Speerschneider, the chief permitting and policy officer at EverPower Wind Holdings, based in the Strip District.
“We’re a little concerned about the one-sided nature, at least as the resolution is written.”
The opening clauses of the resolution, which establish why a comprehensive wind study is necessary, declare that wind facilities are being constructed without adequately considering their effects on wildlife. “Research and guidance are required before potentially negative impacts on wildlife become severe and irreversible.”
In a press release lauding passage of the resolution, its sponsor, Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, highlighted reports of damage that wind energy facilities cause to birds, bats and landscapes.
“We can no longer just assume that wind turbines are absolutely harmless to our environment or even a viable source of alternative energy,” she said.
Michael Krancer, the state’s former Department of Environmental Protection secretary under Gov. Tom Corbett, welcomed the study and said wind has been given a “free pass” from scrutiny of its environmental impact for a long time.
“I’m glad that this will foster that discussion,” he said. “I think the public deserves to know what the answers are.”
Although the commission’s report might be the first to pull together details about wind energy’s influence on everything from grid reliability to bat deaths in Pennsylvania in one document, many of the component parts of the study have been the subject of independent research for years.
“I don’t think it’s going to tell us a whole lot of new information,” said Nels Johnson, the deputy state director for the Nature Conservancy in Pennsylvania. He said the report might be a useful resource for policy makers.
Mr. Johnson has written or contributed to several reports on the landscape impacts of wind and shale gas development in Pennsylvania and the Appalachian region. On that metric, at least, wind comes out the winner.
“The footprint from oil and gas development is way more extensive,” he said.
But wind facilities tend to be erected on ridge tops, which are important for watersheds and migrating birds. “That’s not to say that all wind development is going to have major impacts,” he said, “but they can if they are not sited right.”
In terms of wildlife, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has taken a lead role since 2007 in studying the effects of wind energy facilities through a cooperative agreement with many of the wind farm operators in the state.
The Game Commission’s research has found that each wind turbine in Pennsylvania kills an average of 26 bats and four birds per year. As of June 2012, there were 518 active turbines in the state.
For bat populations, which have been decimated by white-nose syndrome in recent years, the additional stress can be devastating. “You certainly want to save all the bats you can,” Game Commission Spokesman Travis Lau said.
The Game Commission has not studied wind’s wildlife impacts in relation to other energy sources, Mr. Lau said, and he is not aware of any other studies that have done so. He said the Joint State Government Commission’s report will use new wildlife surveys and not just rely on the numbers the Game Commission has compiled.
Some national and international studies have attempted to assess the number of birds killed per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by wind compared to coal, natural gas or nuclear power – taking into account bird deaths associated with climate change from burning fossil fuels – but those studies have not been specific to the region.
A National Audubon Society report released this month found that more than half of North America’s bird species will be threatened or endangered by climate change by the end of the century.
A second report this month, by the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, said wind turbines kill 234,000 birds in the United States each year, while collisions with power lines, automobiles and building windows kill 25 million birds, 200 million birds and 599 million birds, respectively.
By far the greatest direct human cause of bird mortality each year, the report said, is pet cats that are allowed outside, as both pet and feral cats kill 2.4 billion birds in the nation annually.
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