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United States

Protection plan sparks resistance in US

UNITED STATES: Two proposed voluntary guidelines aimed at protecting wildlife from wind development has sparked a flood of resistance on both sides of the debate.

The draft proposals - one concerning general wildlife, the other focused on eagles - issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have been deemed overly restrictive and unworkable by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and not strict enough by conservationists.

In total, FWS received 29,000 comments by the May 19 deadline, and it is likely that at least a year will pass before FWS examines the comments, issues responses and prepares permanent guidelines. In the meantime, provisions made in 2003 will prevail for wildlife, while eagles are covered by a 2009 decree.

AWEA believes the best way forward lies in the recommendations of a 22-member federal advisory committee, featuring leaders of industry, conservation, government and tribes, who spent two-and-a-half years crafting guideline proposals backed by conservation groups such as the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Union of Concerned Scientists, a coalition of state governors and various stakeholders.

But Tom Vinson, senior director of regulatory affairs at AWEA, says the draft FWS guidelines ignore the committee's recommendations in several key areas. He remains hopeful, however, that this will be corrected following the comment process.

As it stands, key points in the wildlife draft give FWS the power to veto what is currently a developer-led process for working through benchmark steps, along with three-year-plus studies at all sites. Another provision proposes mitigation through shutting down specific turbines at various times of year.

"I hesitate to boil down our concerns too narrowly at risk of making it seem like there's a handful of easy fixes," Vinson says. "They've proposed a lot of things that will undermine project economics."

The eagle draft continues with five-year permits, and no assurance that renewal requirements will be the same for developments within ten miles of eagle nests. This triggers the National Environmental Policy Act, calling for impact statements that add considerable time and expense. "In many parts of the country, almost every project is going to have an eagle nest within ten miles," Vinson explains.

Holistic approach

The overarching point, wind proponents say, is that self-policing allows the industry to take a holistic approach towards protecting the environment instead of adhering to the narrow itemised checklist that the draft guidelines represent.

Meanwhile, conservationists argue that the proposed guidelines are too soft, and should be replaced with stringent mandatory federal standards. The American Bird Conservancy, spearheading a coalition of 58 groups, cites the US Department of Energy's goal of sourcing 20% of the nation's electricity supply from wind power by 2030 as a major concern.

"We're estimating that will result in a death toll of at least a million birds a year, possibly more," says Kelly Fuller, the organisation's wind coordinator. "Nobody wants to see another Altamont Pass."

While the industry has not forgotten Altamont Pass, a California raptor-mortality nightmare in the 1980s, it believes it has learned to govern itself in a way that produces best-practice behaviour.

"We've got 41GW in the ground in this country right now and haven't had another Altamont Pass in 30 years," says Stu Webster, wind-permitting director at Iberdrola Renewables. "This industry would do a remarkable job of addressing the broader environmental concerns, except that we're all kind of vested right now in addressing these direct-impact questions."

John Rogers, senior analyst in the climate and energy programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the answer lies in the FAC recommendations.

"What came out of those was a set of science-based guidelines that the environmental community felt properly captured its concerns and the industry thought it could live with," Rogers says. "And then we end up with the FWS draft guidelines, which really seem to depart in significant ways."

Webster is convinced that the final guidelines will remain voluntary and include key committee recommendations. "There will be a reasonable compromise reached - I have no doubt in my mind about that. It won't be hard to go back and figure out what the common ground is between FWS and the industry," he says.

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