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Hays: Grassland impacted by development

The last two Southeast Kansas Audubon meetings have featured representatives of Apex Clean Energy speaking about wind farms.

To balance that, the organization brought in someone Tuesday night not affiliated with a for-profit company to talk about wind energy.

Jim Hays has worked 12 years as conservation projects coordinator for the non-profit The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Before that he worked for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism for 30 years and was once the chief of the ecological services section. Before that he worked as a wildlife biologist.

TNC’s mission is to conserve land and water.

Hays has been working with wind energy since wind energy came to Kansas in the late 1990s.

By the time he started with TNC, wind energy was growing in Kansas. Currently, he said, there are more than 30 developed wind farms in Kansas producing up to 5,095 megawatts (MW) of energy. As well, there are six wind farms under construction, capable of producing up to 1,534 MW.

Considering earlier wind farms constructed, a 300 MW wind farm could cover up to 75,000 acres. A 400 megawatt wind farm could occupy up to 80,000 acres. Today’s taller wind turbines, 600 to 650 feet in tower height, can produce from 3.6 MW to 4.2 MW each, so fewer acres are needed. This also reduces the number of turbines required, the energy system’s overall footprint and potentially decreases the impact on the environment and its natural systems by minimizing habitat fragmentation, he said.

Fifty turbines can now do the job of 75 to 100 turbines to produce 300 MW, Hays said.

Placing wind turbines in grassland fragments many acres and disrupts wildlife and grassland ecosystems, he said. The base of each turbine and its concrete pad cover a half acre.

Most environmental impact statements for wind farms focus on bird and bat strikes, but these cited numbers relate to the earlier, smaller turbines.

“There is no research on the number of bird and bat strikes resulting from the larger turbines and blades, and what the mortality rates are,” Hays said. “One thing we do know is there will be fewer turbines out there.”

Wind companies say each site is unique when it comes to bird and bat strikes.

“I’ve seen it all, from two or three birds per megawatt, per turbine, per year, up to 15 birds per megawatt, per turbine, per year,” Hays said. “Much of the information these guys collect is proprietary and they don’t want to tell anyone. I can’t hardly get information on what they collect. Nobody can.”

Hays said he has worked with three wind energy companies at numerous sites in Kansas.

“Most companies are not interested in talking with us,” Hays said, speaking of TNC nationwide. “Nor have they been too interested in speaking with the state or the federal.

“At this last wind and wildlife meeting at St. Paul, even within the industry and biologists up there, there’s been a cry for, ‘We need to get all this information together, because the more information we have, the better decisions we can make.’ So there’s a lot more discussion, at least, right now, so that’s a good thing.”

American Wind and Wildlife Institute and the National Wind Coalition Collaborative organized the wildlife meetings, and most of the research produced talks only about birds and bats killed by turbines.

“All wind developments kill birds. All of them. What we don’t know for sure is how many,” Hays said.

The blade tips are turning much faster than they appear. Some wind farms report tip speeds of 180 and 200 mph.

Asked what regulations exist for wind farms, Hays said: “There are no requirements or regulations in the state of Kansas on wind turbines, and most states are like that.

“When I was section chief and we were working with wind, when Gov. Hayden was governor, he put together an environmental committee with all the state agencies that had to do with anything environment and water and different things. We’d meet about once every two weeks, and once we started seeing all this stuff coming in, I proposed to this committee that somehow we need to have someplace to collect information on wind developers when they come into the state of Kansas. Nobody does that,” Hays said. “I was told by a legislator in no uncertain terms that in no way do we want to impact the opportunity for economic development in this state. Nothing has happened since then, and Kansas is not unique in that. Most states don’t have any regulations regarding wind.

“They don’t even have to talk to anyone. They don’t have any agency they have to go to to say we want to build this wind farm. So … when the companies come into a county like Neosho, the only people around to try to figure things out is the county commissioners or the planning and zoning boards … and what we have found is the county commissioners are woefully unprepared for this, because they have no idea about what all these things are and what is happening out there.”

Two agencies have regulatory authority in Kansas: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Wildlife and Parks.

Wind farms used to seek TNC support, touting wind energy as “green” energy.

“We don’t necessarily disagree with that, but it depends on the sites, whether it’s green or not. It’s not green if it is impacting natural systems or the native wildlife. So we do not give endorsements for wind energy, but we do review, if we’re asked, sites and give an opinion.”

To help wind developers better know where to locate wind farms with minimal impact on Kansas and Oklahoma residents, TNC developed on interactive website, nature.org/sitewindright. Its staffers spent 18 months pulling together science-based information and created an interactive mapping tool. This tool shows low and high environmental risks, determining areas of least impact on natural resources and wildlife, such as native grassland birds, and also lower risk for developers when they are looking for project backing.

TNC wanted to show there were plenty of low-risk areas for development. Years back the federal Department of Energy identified a certain number of megawatts Kansas could develop. By using the mapping system, TNC found 10 times the amount of space, demonstrating plenty of area to develop that is not going to impact natural resources, native grasslands and wetlands.

Hays said TNC supports renewable energy when it is properly placed.

“We’re seeing a great deal of evidence – movement of plants, movement of wildlife and all the other things going on,” Hays said. Renewable energy is one means of helping address the problem of global warming, hopefully while not creating other problems.

Native grassland birds are in decline around the world because of what is going on with the grasslands, Hays said.

“We’re losing our grasslands like we’re losing a lot of other systems due to fragmentation. Cedars are growing all over them and other trees are encroaching, and developments are breaking up large expanses for housing developments and wind farms, and some states are still breaking out grasslands to farm,” Hays said.

Early studies showed wind farms and other developments created issues with grassland birds, as the vast expanses of grassland they need to survive are divided by roads, power lines and turbines. This impacts breeding and nesting.

“We’ve been trying to get wind developers to open up their sites for pre-construction/post construction scientific studies, not just anecdotal comments, and they won’t. There has not been great research done on this avoidance issue,” Hays said. “The research that continues to be put out is on bird strikes and bat strikes.”