Almost three degrees Fahrenheit or 1.5 degrees Celsius: Compared to pre-industrial global temperatures, that’s how much warmer the earth is predicted to be between 2030 and 2052 if global warming continues at the current rate, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In their special report released in October, the IPCC, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations, detailed possible effects of this increase, which they attribute to human activities that have been increasing rapidly since the onset of industrialization some 200 years ago. According to their report, human activities are estimated to have already caused approximately 1.0 degree C (1.8 degrees F) of global warming above pre-industrial levels.
The report calls for a “strengthened global response,” particularly the urgent need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Many have already responded to this call for action, as evidenced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s self-described unprecedented commitment to making New York’s electricity 100 percent carbon free by 2040.
The local impact of this commitment is evident in Arkwright’s 36 turbines that went online in September, and Ball Hill Wind’s 29 proposed turbines in Hanover and Villenova. The latest developments in wind energy will soon be seen – possibly sooner than expected – in Cassadaga Wind, LLC’s up to 48 planned turbines.
The project is the first in the state to be approved under Article 10 of the Public Service Law, which Gov. Cuomo signed into effect in order to streamline the siting process for electric generating facilities greater than 25 megawatts. Cassadaga Wind will cover 40,000 acres of land in the towns of Arkwright, Charlotte, Cherry Creek and Stockton, and is projected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 170,000 tons per year, according to Innogy, the wind company behind the project. With the imminent need to address climate concerns, wind energy appears to be a good solution; however, is it the best solution?
Some would argue “no.” According to Cassadaga Wind’s Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need (certificate), issued by the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment last January, the project will result in a permanent loss of 46.4 acres of forested land and “can be expected to, at a minimum, kill 516 bats annually and 15,480 bats over the 30-year operational life of the Project,” the certificate states. “In addition, siting of Project facilities could permanently eliminate up to 77.3 acres of habitat and roosting areas from the Project area, including that used by bats.”
Deforestation, a contributor to global warming, and bat population loss, which has a tremendous impact on agriculture, are not insignificant consequences of wind energy development. In a peer-reviewed report published in November 2018, Dr. Taber D. Allison, director of research at the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) addresses this very subject. AWWI, which works in partnership with several wildlife organizations and wind energy companies, including Innogy, seeks to “achieve a shared understanding of the pace and scale of renewable energy siting needed to help limit the wildlife impacts of climate change as we minimize impacts to bats.”
“Can we develop wind energy at the pace and scale needed to meet emission reduction goals and not imperil bat populations as we do so?” Allison asks. “Can we protect bats without impeding the contribution of wind energy to emission reduction targets that are needed in the next two decades?”
Perhaps, says JCC biology professor and bat researcher, Jonathan Townsend. But only if strict mitigation measures are adhered to and other alternative renewable energy sources are implemented, instead of erecting more wind turbines. “The cumulative impact of these wind projects has not been properly publicized or assessed,” he said. “Each project states that their impacts will be ‘minimal,’ yet they fail to address the additional mortality from each new project. … Once these turbines are up, they will begin killing bats for as long as they are operational, and the more that are installed, the worse the problem will become, so we need to consider this very carefully.”
A direct challenge to this is Cassadaga Wind’s Jan. 11 filing for an amendment to their certificate, which requests the siting board to allow forest-clearing to begin as early as April 1 instead of Nov. 1. According to the filing, an amendment is needed due to construction deadlines, financial commitments and possible construction disturbances. However, Cassadaga Wind’s proposed start date for tree clearing coincides with maternity season for several local bat species – a biologically sensitive situation that is currently protected by condition 147 of the certificate, which limits clearing to Nov. 1 through March 31.
“There’s no denying that wind energy is here, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon,” said Townsend, who is a board member of the Greystone Nature Preserve’s Bat, Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary and Conservation Lands Manager of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy. Townsend believes there are mitigation measures that can be taken to protect bat populations to some extent. However, granting the amendment to begin forest-clearing in April would eliminate one of the most important of these measures, which have already been compromised since the certificate was granted last January.
“The operational curtailment that the DEC and the DPS (Department of Public Service) and the Concerned Citizens of Cassadaga tried to get required was watered down quite a bit,” Townsend said. In the original certificate, the company was required to curtail (reduce) turbine blade speed before sunset to 30 minutes after sunrise every day from July 1 through Oct. 1 when the ambient air temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit or greater and when the wind speed is less than 6.9 meters per second. Under these conditions, bat activity, particularly that of the Northern Long-Eared Bat (NLEB), a federal and state endangered species, is higher; therefore, reducing blade speed at this rate “would have reduced bat mortality by up to 80 percent of most species of bats in the Facility area and 100 percent for the NLEB,” Townsend said.
However, since January 2018, the wind company that was originally granted the certificate sold the project to Innogy, who requested that curtailment be changed to 5 meters per second, due to concerns about the economic viability of the project due to loss of power production. Later in 2018, this request was granted by the siting board.
“Now, they’re trying to get around another reasonable condition of their Certificate that would not only protect bats, but birds and all the surrounding wildlife,” Townsend said of the request to begin tree clearing in April. “The construction and operation of the project reduces the quality of habitat that they have, which impacts the bats physiologically, may interfere with their reproductive success, their ability to successfully rear young, and it could impact the ability of the newborn pups to survive to the second year.”
This problem is compounded by the fact that many bat species only give birth to one pup a year, and several populations have already suffered significant losses (90 to 99 percent of NLEB) due to White-nose Syndrome, which was discovered approximately 10 years ago. “We’d go to Chautauqua Institution when I was studying bats here at SUNY Fredonia 15 years ago,” Townsend recalled. “There was a summer colony of 5,000 little brown bats living there every year – it was one of the biggest maternity colonies in the northeast United States. And now there’s very, very few left.”
Part II of this series will be published in Sunday’s OBSERVER, which examines Jonathan Townsend’s research on how Chautauqua County’s watershed, forests and animal populations may be affected by earlier tree clearing.