PULAWSKI TOWNSHIP – Developers for a proposed wind farm east of Rogers City are seeking Federal Aviation Administration approval for the project.
Swan Bay Energy Steve Gust said the agency is reviewing site plans for 42 turbines, 21 on Carmeuse Lime and Stone property and 21 on US Steel property near Adams Point and Big and Little Trout lakes. Some are close enough to the Presque Isle County Airport to need a permit, but less than half do.
“I feel good about that, there should be no issue in erecting the turbines on these two sites that we have a lease on,” he said. “That’s all good news, it’s all part of the permitting process we have to go through.”
FAA Spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said the agency’s will review whether the turbines interfere with any air traffic lanes of travel or if they’re too close to an airport, among other items. No two sites are alike, so the review could result in a number of different outcomes.
Swan Bay Energy is seeking an owner operator for the proposed 140 megawatt capacity wind farm, Gust said. They’re on the “short list” with a few, and are in active talks with another. It’s a slow process for a deal involving hundreds of millions of dollars in capital, but the company expects Gov. Rick Snyder to increase renewable energy requirements for Michigan power companies. They’re also looking to take advantage of an energy market affected by the pending retirements of several coal-fired power plants across the state.
First the company must complete the permitting process, and while Gust said the proposal is nearing its final stages, some steps remain. Those include determining whether the wind farm would have an impact on migratory birds and bats.
Scott Hicks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor for the East Lansing office, said the agency works with wind energy developers to try to minimize potential wildlife impacts. They advise them on how to collect data, both for wildlife in the air and on the ground. While the USFWS has no authority to stop a project from going forward, it can advise them on how to minimize the risk to wildlife and determine whether risk mitigation is possible or feasible.
So far, USFWS has given recommendations on how Swan Bay Energy should conduct its preconstruction wildlife studies, Hicks said. Birds and bats can be killed in collisions with wind turbine blades, and migratory birds are protected by law. So are bald eagles, of which there are a number in Presque Isle County. Wind developers can seek permits from the USFWS if they believe their wind farm will cause eagle deaths, and the agency can advise whether to seek one.
Generally, the agency recommends that wind farms are built at least three miles away from the Great Lakes shoreline because migratory birds tend to fly along the shore, USFWS Midwest Region Public Affairs Specialist Georgia Parham said. While the agency can make this recommendation, it can’t enforce it. Instead, it offers detailed guidelines for wind developers on how to lessen the wildlife impacts of their projects.
“We don’t regulate the wind energy industry, we don’t have the purview to do that,” she said. “What we can do is, using these guidelines, make recommendations that will maximize conservation to migratory birds and other species.”
Swan Bay Energy is working with a private wildlife biologist that has studied the potential wildlife impacts of other wind farms, including one on Garden Peninsula, Gust said. Much of the proposed development’s environmental impacts were assessed in the early days of the project, which began in 2013.
An earlier search found that no eagles were nesting around Adams Point within a buffer zone required by the USFWS, Gust said, and some of the turbines would be built on land that has been previously strip-mined. Unlike the nearby forests it has little to offer for food or habitat. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has approved the sites for what impact they’ll have on the ground, including plants, wildlife and wetlands, and adjusted a few locations in light of those concerns.
Overall, Gust said he believes there are no issues with migratory birds or bats for the proposed wind farm, although two more phases of a migratory bird study remain. The consultant working with Swan Bay Energy has completed a fall study, and a spring and summer study must be done. They’re very costly, so the developer has held off while pursuing other permitting processes and seeking the funds to complete these studies.
From there, the consultant would share findings with the USFWS, Gust said. It’s very common for wind developers to hire private biologists, Hicks said, and when the agency gets their data it’ll offer further recommendations, including whether the proposal would pose particular risks to species of concern.
“There are a lot of different potential recommendations that could flow from that,” he said.
Environmental concerns are the final piece of the project, Gust said, with the remaining ones expected to be in place by the summer.
“This is really good for this whole area, really good for everything, the environment, the community, the state of Michigan,” he said. “And for the world in general, if you think about it.”
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