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NextEra examining environmental impacts of wind turbines as project continues

With NextEra Energy Resources proposing a new wind, solar and energy storage facility about 30 miles north of Flagstaff, officials with the company say they are examining the environmental implications of the project.

The 160-megawatts facility proposed by the company could bring about 61 wind turbines and between 400 and 600 acres of solar panels, as well as a battery storage facility, to an area made up of Babbitt Ranch and state trust land east of Valle.

The project has a lifespan of about 30 years.

Project lead Wardah Abbasi said the decision on how many acres of solar panels to install could largely depend on the specific terrain, and added that the choice will be made closer to installation.

Abbasi also said they are taking measures to limit the risk of fire that the installations might create, especially the battery storage structures. She said the batteries will be enclosed and that containers will be equipped with both heat and smoke detectors. If systems detect a problem, they also have the ability to shut down the storage systems.

If fires do occur, Abbasi said, chemical fire suppression systems are installed inside the battery enclosure. And she said as the company moves forward and applies for approval for the project from Coconino County, part of that process will be creating a response plan with local fire officials in case something should go wrong.

The project has been in the works for nearly a decade, and in that time officials with NextEra said they have also been examining any potential impacts to birds and bats in the area.

During a virtual town hall last month, Eric Koster, environmental permitting manager with NextEra, said they have completed avian, eagle and bat surveys in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

He added that they are using the information gathered to locate turbine in areas where the impacts on those species won’t be as great. For example, the closest eagle nest is over 3 1/2 miles away and the habitat area does not concentrate raptors during migrations.

Koster said they completed another study of avian species in the area last year and a second study will be completed by December.

In terms of spices that live closer to the ground, Koster said that while there are deer, elk and pronghorn in the area, those species are unlikely to see any substantial impacts.

“Today, there’s no data that show that wind farms impact migrating elk herds. In fact, we tend to see elk using wind farms after their update. They like the shade of the structures, and we tend to see quite a few elk using wind farms,” Koster said, adding that they would expect to see animals including elk and deer avoid an area during construction, but once that is finished and activity dies down, they don’t expect that to continue.

And the area holds no endangered or threatened animal species, Koster said.

There were prairie dogs in the area, but the plague has eliminated the species from within sites they are looking at, Koster said.

In terms of the implications on the night skies, Abbasi said lights will be installed on the turbines to warn off low-flying aircraft, as is required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

But Abbasi said they are looking at strategies to keep those lights off more often than not.

She said if the FAA approves of the plan, they will install a radar-based system that keeps the lights off unless an aircraft is approaching or descending toward a wind farm. The system detects aircraft at a minimum of 1,000 feet above the wind turbines and then lights will come on.

In that way, Abbasi said, the lights will be off except for times they are actually needed.

The same system was recently installed on another northern Arizona wind farm owned and operated by NextEra. In July of last year, Abbasi said they installed a radar system on the Perrin Ranch wind farm north of Williams and since that time, the lights have been off on average 80% of the time during any given month.

Abbasi said in December of last year, the company also sent letters to 17 tribes in the region to inform tribal governments of the project and seek input.

So far, she said, they have received just a handful of responses back, including from the Navajo Nation and the Havasupai. Abbasi said they are still in contact with both tribes providing information on the project.