Wind farm impact on wildlife debated

wind farm

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a draft habitat conservation plan for the Criterion Wind Project - a 70-megawatt clean energy facility in Oakland, Maryland. The FWS says the plan would ensure that the project's 28 wind turbines do not put wildlife in harm's way while they continue to meet the energy requirements of 23,000 households.

Originally owned by the Constellation Energy Group, the wind farm now belongs to Chicago-based Exelon corporation. In contrast with the apparent environmentally conscious approach of Criterion itself, Exelon is a leading nuclear power plant operator and natural gas company in the U.S., responsible for several pollution incidents.

However Exelon has a renewable energy division which seems to represent Criterion and other wind projects throughout the U.S., as well as a solar plant.

The Fish and Wildlife Service plan seeks to address possible impacts on endangered animals from the Oakland facility's turbines. In particular, the Service is focusing on the Indiana bat, an endangered species. Under the plan, in order to continue operating, the wind farm would need to obtain an incidental take permit. "Take" means causing harm to or killing endangered wildlife, however inadvertantly.

The permit would require Criterion to take measures to minimize the take of animals caught in the turbines. One of those measures would be slowing the turbines at certain times of the year to reduce the number of affected Indiana bats.

This is a rare example of two pro-environment forces conflicting, as this marks the first time the Fish and Wildlife Service has restricted the operation of a commercial wind project in the region to protect animals from harm.

The small Indiana bats have been officially listed as in danger of disappearing since 1967. In recent years, biologists note, the threat to their survival has become more imminent due to human interference with caves, pesticide poisoning, and a relatively new disease affecting them, called white-nose syndrome.

There is also concern over the deaths of birds exposed to the facility. Reportedly, about 450,000 birds are killed by wind turbines per year. In particular, eagles near wind farms in California are at risk. The state's Altamont Pass Wind Farm kills about 75 to 100 eagles every year, according to the Audubon Society - sometimes decapitating the eagles or cutting them in half with its turbine blades.

As a result, a difficult conflict of concerns arises, with activists and organizations weighing the equally important tasks of preserving endangered species and providing clean, renewable energy.

Stu Webster, environmental director at Iberdrola Renewables, which wants to build an industrial-scale wind farm in California's McCain Valley, remarked, "As we adjust laws rightfully passed to protect [these] birds, we want to make sure the wind power industry is not stagnated in its mission to generate clean energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels."

On the other hand, Mark Duchamp, president of Save the Eagles International, strongly opposed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to issue a take permit to Criterion. He concluded, "Eagles are a federally protected species. Yet, the USFWS is minded to issue licenses to kill golden eagles in order to benefit wind farm developers."

One viewpoint that will not be seen as being on the correct side of the argument is that of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who appears to be pursuing an anti-wind agenda altogether. This week, Romney indicated he wanted to end tax credits for wind farm projects. If Republicans secure the White House in November, those credits would definitely be allowed to expire at the end of the year.

The American Wind Energy Association noted that a number of wind projects are already slowing down in the face of that possibility. As that slowing down occurs, layoffs are sure to follow, sources say.

The tax credits, said AWEA chief executive Denise Bode, are "an example of effective, job-creating tax policy, but with expiration looming at the end of the year, 37,000 good American jobs are in peril. That is why Congress must act now to save U.S. wind jobs."

Photo: A wind farm near Palm Springs, California. Brian van der Brug/AP & Los Angeles Times

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