When the Ohio Power Siting Board unanimously approved the Icebreaker Wind project recently, initial reactions were quickly tempered: A condition was included that required turning turbines off, or “feathering,” at night during eight months of the year to protect bats and migratory birds. The decision allowed the OPSB to remove or adjust this condition if post-construction studies deemed it no longer necessary.
Project supporters have railed at this condition, calling it a “poison pill,” politically motivated, and more, and there has been strong pressure on decision-makers to force the OPSB to reconsider. What has been missing is recognition of why the feathering condition was necessary.
The fact is, the Great Lakes are enormously important to birds. Millions of ducks and other waterfowl use the lakes during migration and in the winter months. Songbirds congregate along their shorelines during migration and make spectacular nocturnal flights over them. The high volume of bird “traffic” in this area is well-documented. It’s why the National Audubon Society designated the area off the coast of Cleveland a Global Important Bird Area.
The well-documented importance of the Great Lakes (and Lake Erie, specifically) to birds sets a high bar for any offshore wind facility to prove that it can be installed without unacceptable impacts. Reaching this bar starts with selecting an appropriate location. The Icebreaker facility, which would set the standard for wind energy development in the Great Lakes, was instead proposed in the heart of a critically important area for birds, setting high stakes from the start. It was clear that hundreds of additional turbines were to follow.
In the face of existing data on birds’ use of the project area, the developer commissioned studies in the vicinity of the project site. However, these studies were inadequate for a precedent-setting project, and the methods used were debunked by independent experts from my organization and Black Swamp Bird Observatory. Today, there remains every reason to believe that the project and those expected to follow pose a high risk to birds.
Complicating this scenario further, no proven way is yet available to document bird collisions with offshore turbines. Consider that offshore wind energy is a mature industry in Europe, and that more than 25,000 megawatts of offshore projects are being planned on the U.S. coasts, yet no such monitoring technology is fully validated. It seems highly unlikely that this will soon materialize for Icebreaker.
These factors left the OPSB in a position to decide whether or not to approve a project that will jeopardize native wildlife, without any way to confirm the actual impacts post-construction. Hence, the requirement for feathering at night eight months of the year until proven unnecessary. This was a well-reasoned and prudent decision to protect a public resource in the face of great uncertainty.
Project supporters are quick to point out that some environmental groups are vocal advocates of this precedent-setting development. They ignore the fact that among national and regional bird-focused organizations, none formally supported the project as it was finally proposed.
If wind energy facilities are to be placed anywhere in the Great Lakes, they should be sited based on sound data showing that the location is low-risk for birds and bats. Choosing a high-risk location instead requires high standards to minimize impacts.
We need to do more to protect birds. A recent study shows that the United States and Canada lost nearly 3 billion birds – almost 30 percent of the total population – since 1970. This is not the time to take chances with bird populations. Wind energy facilities are a rapidly expanding additional source of bird mortality and must be addressed accordingly.
The feathering condition is absolutely the right decision. We thank the OPSB and state of Ohio for standing firmly to protect a valuable and diminishing public resource – our birds.
Joel Merriman is the Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign director for the American Bird Conservancy, where he works to promote wind energy development practices that minimize impacts to declining bird populations.