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United States

Eagle deaths push policy up the agenda

UNITED STATES: Long-awaited federal policy intended to help protect bald and golden eagles from wind turbines and blades began coming into focus in late March, as the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released the first of two voluntary guideline documents.

The broad Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines, which come into effect immediately, are intended to minimise negative impacts on fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats. They supplants guidelines from 2003 when the wind industry was still in its relative infancy.

In the works since 2007, the new document follows a handful of recent incidents in the western half of the country and begins to address the American wind industry's urgent need for cogent overall policy.

The other document, Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance, is likely to be released as a second draft. Although a finalised version is probably months away, the draft should begin to provide much-needed specifics related to the application procedure for "take permits" that allow a specific number of eagle mortalities - known as takes - at a project over a five-year period.

"The industry has been looking to come up with these solutions for nearly a decade," said John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Still, Anderson points to an inherent flaw with the five-year duration of take permits for wind projects intended to last 20 years or more. "At the five-year mark there's a potential that the service may not renew the permit if they determine that the impacts are too great, or greater than expected," Anderson said. "That creates a huge liability for lenders."

Removing uncertainty

The threat that a project could be saddled with significant extra costs in the middle of a long-term power-purchase agreement tied to the rate negotiated at its outset might scare investors from putting up money in the first place. Anderson believes that the answer is a 30-year permit with five-year checkpoints. "But there's some work that needs to go into it," he added.

In California, meanwhile, two carcasses found in February brought total eagle mortalities to eight at the two-year-old site of Pine Tree, a 90-turbine wind farm owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP). The situation has called into question the overall viability of upcoming developments in the booming Tehachapi region of Kern County.

Although DWP is working with state and federal regulators to fashion a mitigation plan, opponents believe that a moratorium on nearby development is needed. The county intends to total 10GW of renewables by 2015 as part of the state's renewable-energy goal of 33% by 2020.

In Oregon, plans for the 104MW West Butte project include an application for a take permit based on relatively ambiguous guidelines issued in 2009. If granted, it would be the nation's first such permit. Projects in Alaska and Minnesota, along with another in Oregon, are also exploring take permits, according to Mike Green, an Oregon-based FWS biologist.

Not everyone believes the existing and upcoming guidance plans are viable. "What we have right now is a system that's kind of a regulatory free-for-all," said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign co-ordinator for the American Bird Conservancy. "We don't have any kind of mandatory system. There are no real rules for what the facilities actually have to do. We don't think voluntary guidelines are going to work."

Voluntary approach

But AWEA and the at-large industry firmly believe the guidelines should - and will - remain voluntary. Their logic maintains that the industry does a better job of proactive and all-encompassing wildlife protection if allowed to focus on site-specific big-picture issues rather than a checklist of mandatory one-size-fits-all requirements.

The California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) recently applied for $750,000 in grant funding from the state's Public Interest Energy Research programme to fund eagle research in Kern County. "We don't know enough about the eagle population," said CalWEA executive director Nancy Rader. "We want to compile and analyse all the data that's out there and sitting in boxes."

The research would also include helicopter studies to assess the area's eagle population and would co-ordinate with development of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which focuses on accelerated permitting for more than 90,000 square kilometres of California desert that includes the vaunted Tehachapi region. According to Rader, the area could host up to 80% of the state's new wind, solar and other renewable-energy projects by 2050.

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