FLOYDADA – A giant wind power project is undoubtedly boosting Floyd County’s local economy and providing enough renewable energy to power thousands of homes and businesses.
It’s one of numerous wind farms changing the landscape across the South Plains.
Though they’re bringing praise from area leaders both for their boost to green energy and economic development, the turbines also have a West Texas researcher and officials exploring the impact they could have on area wildlife.
Wildlife biologist Ray Matlack is concerned about birds and bats in the area and hopes his research into the field could give those planning wind farms better information.
“My problem isn’t with turbines – it’s with where you put them,” he said. “Their location can greatly influence the mortality of wildlife.”
Matlack, based with West Texas A&M University in Canyon, makes frequent research trips to Caprock Canyons State Park and the surrounding area.
He’s in his second year of a five-year study with the Amarillo-based Pantex Plant. The project centers on five turbines on federal land; goals are to determine if they kill birds and bats.
Pantex installed turbines to meet some of its energy needs, then contracted the West Texas A&M team for pre- and post-construction surveys. Matlack praises the agency for allowing him to share the results of his research.
“Pantex maintains an important role for our national security mission and remains committed to protecting our workforce, the public and the environment,” Pantex spokesman George Rangel said via email.
A larger-scale wind project is in development in Floyd County. Dozens of wind turbines already fill country fields; Apex Clean Energy is in the process of building 166 more.
Like most wind power companies, Apex conducts mortality studies. The company discusses those results with federal and state wildlife agencies, but declined to share them with A-J Media.
“They are considered confidential business information due to the sensitivity of the topic,” spokeswoman Dahvi Wilson said via email.
Matlack has encountered similar rejection. As a private company, Apex is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act as readily as, say, a county or state agency. He acknowledges it holds no legal obligation to publish its mortality studies, but doesn’t understand why it won’t provide them voluntarily.
“I just wanna know, why are they spending all this money to collect data and not publish it? It makes me suspicious,” he said.
The results could give scientists like him insight on how to minimize bird and bat deaths, he said. For example, say studies indicate the creatures are killed at a higher rate along the Caprock Escarpment, where the high plains of the Llano Estacado drops to rolling plains. Then, he could recommend wind companies construct future turbines at a greater distance inside the Escarpment.
He said he’s particularly worried about turbines closer to Clarity Tunnel, about 10 miles down the Caprock Canyons Trailway and home to thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats. The tiny, winged mammals migrate each year; farmers like them because their favorite foods are bugs that damage corn and cotton crops.
“I’m not saying shut ’em down – I’m saying let us see the data so we can make better decisions about where to put the next turbines,” he said. “It could be a simple fix.”
But with no publicly available data from the area, he can only speculate.
Apex is hardly alone in declining to release those studies. Companies are not required to submit their survey results to the state, and only some do so voluntarily, Texas Parks and Wildlife spokesman Tom Harvey said.
Invenergy, for instance, has built dozens of turbines near the Crosby-Dickens line. A-J Media was unable to find Invenergy’s wildlife surveys online, and the company did not return phone calls or emails as of news time.
The 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Land Based Wind Energy Guidelines recommend developers consult with both that federal agency and their respective state agencies. In those guidelines, the service points toward studies linking wind energy to bird and bat deaths.
Studies involve slowly walking around a 50-meter radius of the base of a turbine, looking for carcasses.
But it’s not as simple as counting bodies. You also have to try to find out if any hungry vultures or coyotes found them first. Then consider the accuracy of your own eyes.
Matlack: “What you find is only a small portion of what’s out there. Basically, you take in what you find, take in what your scavengers took out and take in your searcher efficiency.”
He compares an animal’s potential impact by a wind turbine blade with being struck by a baseball bat.
“They do get hit – the ends of those turbines are moving really fast,” he said.
Area bat species are similarly at risk for impact collisions, but can also be killed in near-misses. Barotrauma – a response to a severe change in ambient pressure – can destroy the creatures’ lungs, even if they don’t physically contact the blades.
There are genuine dangers, and Apex is as concerned as anyone, company representatives said.
“Apex is committed to working with wildlife and environmental agencies to ensure that our projects minimize any risk to wildlife and develop responsible plans to address any impacts they may have,” Dave Phillips, Apex’s director of environmental and wildlife permitting, said via email.
And while Apex does not release exact figures from its mortality studies, it insists it’s not a large number.
“With respect to birds, modern wind farms are generally less harmful to birds than buildings, communication towers, power lines and vehicles,” Phillips said. “In fact, turbines account for only a small fraction, about 0.0003 percent, of all human-related bird deaths.”
That figure comes from a 2005 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. According to that report, somewhere between 500 million and 1 billion birds are killed each year from human-related causes.
The report analyzed studies related to various wind projects, then determined U.S. wind turbines are responsible for 20,000 to 37,000 bird deaths each year. In comparison, the same federal report estimated cats kill 100 million birds a year.
Clean energy, economic boost
Apex Clean Energy is working on three projects: Cotton Plains Wind and Old Settler Wind are under construction with plans to be operational in early 2017. Pumpkin Farm Wind, in development stages, has a targeted completion date in 2018. Together they’ll create enough energy to power 152,000 homes, Wilson said.
Wilson and other wind energy supporters consider its environmental impact significantly smaller than other forms of energy. There’s no mining or drilling, no water used and no hazardous waste produced.
“Wind energy is one of the most environmentally friendly forms of electrical generation on the planet,” Phillips said. “Clean, renewable wind energy also displaces harmful emissions from fossil fuel power plants and offsets carbon emissions, making it a safer generation option for people, wildlife and natural ecosystems.”
Then there’s the economic benefit. If you cruise through Floyd County’s wind country, it’s hard not to get excited about the development. Walk up to the turbines and look closely at them, and you’ll be amazed at their size and power. Step back, and you’ll be astonished at their numbers.
Since construction began, Floydada City Manager Jeff Johnston said the local economy has seen a jump in everything from sales tax revenue to rental-home occupancy.
“With us, it’s helped out quite a bit through different avenues,” he said.
Matlack shares the community’s enthusiasm about the economic development, and understands some birds are bats are part of the price. He emphasizes he wants only to minimize those deaths. To do that, he needs to know more about them.
“I’m absolutely OK with the idea that we’re gonna have trade-offs, but we should know what’s going on,” he said. “…I am concerned with the entire vacuum of data we have on mortalities, and man, we’re slapping those turbines up fast.”