BAD AXE – To clear the air on what some county officials called a “wishy-washy” stance, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists visited Huron County on Wednesday to affirm that wind turbines should not be sited within three miles of Great Lakes shorelines.
Jeff Gosse and Scott Hicks of the Fish and Wildlife Service presented results of a Huron County study funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, conducted in 2011 and 2012, to county commissioners and planners in two separate meetings on Wednesday.
The study placed radars at northeastern and southwestern sites in the county to track birds and bats. Measurements were taken between three miles of the shore to about one mile offshore, and biologists say they collected more than 100 nights of data.
Turbines ‘undeniably’ kill bats
Gosse began by saying the Service supports wind development and that the Department of Energy needs five times more wind energy to meet a 20 percent renewable goal by 2030.
“Wind energy in our opinion is good, but we also think it must be properly sited and properly operated,” Gosse said.
According to Fish and Wildlife:
• Radars placed at the southwest Huron County site during fall migration show 3,300 targets – birds and bats – passing through at 5 p.m. one October evening, increasing to 10,000 one hour later and peaking at 13,000 by 2 a.m.
• Bat fatalities occur mostly at night during spring and fall migration.
• As morning approaches, they either have to come to shore or drown, Gosse said, because if they land in the water, they die.
• Weather permitting, turbines aren’t killing targets on most nights. But one night of poor visibility can create hundreds of fatalities, Gosse said.
• There are “a lot” of targets in the rotor swept zone in northeastern Huron County. The rotor swept zone is the diameter covered by turning turbine blades. For 1.5-megawatt (MW) turbines, it’s between 130 to 400 feet; for 2.5 MW, it’s between 165 and 500 feet.
What Fish and Wildlife knows and doesn’t know
Two theories could be contributing to bat kills at wind parks: direct contact with turbine blades and barotrauma – a pressure drop near the tip of a blade that causes ruptured lungs, Gosse said.
“It blows out their lungs, they come down and die,” he said.
But there is debate whether one or both is really occurring.
“So we aren’t sure,” Gosse said. “There’s a lot we don’t know about wind/wildlife interactions.”
Still, Hicks said the agency knows bats are killed at wind turbines, more so than birds.
They also know that bats eat a lot of insects.
Hicks cited a 1995 study that showed a colony of 150 big brown bats ate 1.3 million insect pests a year. He said one estimate for the value of all bats in Huron County, in terms of pest control for farmers, was $27.4 million, according to a 2011 study.
The Service’s three-mile setback from Great Lakes shorelines is a recommendation based on areas along the shoreline identified as having the highest habitat value for migrating and nesting birds.
Hicks said the agency cannot force developers to apply for permits, but killing an eagle and not having an incidental take permit can result in prosecution. The Service’s 2012 wind energy guidelines are voluntary for developers.
Rick Wilson, vice president of operations at Heritage Sustainable Energy, which is currently facing a lawsuit alleging its Garden Wind Farm in the Upper Peninsula will kill protected and endangered species, said the proof that turbines kill birds and bats is missing.
“If they’re going to accuse wind turbines of causing fatalities, you have to correlate it with data and that has not been done by Fish and Wildlife,” Wilson said.
“Bat fatalities at wind turbines are undeniable; they occur,” he said. “The wind turbines are taking high numbers. … As far as proving a correlation, the wind industry has an obligation to not only conduct the post (construction studies) – ”
Wilson interjected, which led to arguments related to the lawsuit.
“We’ve done that,” Wilson said. “Our wind farm in the Garden has 10 turbines, all within (three miles of the shoreline). And there’s no data that shows that we kill any more birds or bats than the average Midwestern wind farm.”
Gosse agreed the Service does not correlate the data to kills, but does identify areas where there are high concentrations of birds and bats and where kills can happen.
Board Chair John Nugent said he appreciated Wilson’s comments, and that it was common to receive conflicting scientific information from both sides.
“I tend to side with the government on this one,” Nugent said.
What else is killing birds and bats?
Matt Wagner, wind development manager at DTE Energy, questioned – relative to deaths from turbines – how many bird and bat kills result from buildings, communication lines and cats.
“For birds, in terms of pure numbers, cats, which I’m not a fan, take high numbers of birds,” Gosse said.
However, most are more common birds, and buildings certainly take them too, he said.
But unlike some structures, the rapid pace that turbines are being set up at is having a noticeable effect, according to Gosse.
“No other human cause of bird fatalities is equal to wind turbines,” he said.
A long time coming
It had been a four-month effort to bring Fish and Wildlife to the county, according to Jeff Smith, the county’s building and zoning director. In October, Gosse wrote to county officials to say the federal agency is confident that land within three miles of the Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron shorelines needs to be protected from wind development.
But it was a recommendation – neither backed by law nor regulated by county ordinance. County officials wanted a clearer ruling.
On Wednesday, Gosse and Hicks presented to county commissioners at a 3:30 p.m. special meeting. About 20 people attended – mostly developers, attorneys and media.
They gave the same presentation to county planners later that day, during a 7 p.m. meeting at Huron County’s Circuit Courtroom. It was standing-room only with about 150 people, but many filed out after a public hearing for a moratorium on wind energy development for up to six months, which county planners decided against in a 5-4 vote.
The 90-minute hearing and vote came before Gosse and Hicks presented – a point made by Lake Township Supervisor Valerie McCallum, who in a letter to the editor that appears in today’s Tribune, said the county had been “rude to our guests” and that planners could have had more information before voting.