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Legal action against Altamont bird kills -- Environmentalists get tough

A US environmental group has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the owners of some of the nation's oldest wind farms, just as the projects were set to receive new operating permits. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed suit against FPL Group Inc, parent company of FPL Energy, the largest wind developer in the US, and NEG Micon, a wind turbine supplier in Denmark and FPL's partner in its Altamont Pass Wind Resource Center (WRC), in January.

The suit charges that the roughly 5400 wind turbines in Altamont Pass have killed up to 10,000 birds in the 20 years since they were first permitted by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, earning it the reputation as the most lethal project in North America. About 2100 of the Kenetech 100 kW turbines have been owned by FPL and NEG Micon since 1998. SeaWest owns a significant number of additional turbines, but CBD says it is going after the biggest two companies first and will see how this lawsuit is resolved before moving ahead on further court action.

A special case

CBD claims the entire array of WRC turbines kills more than 60 golden eagles, 300 red-tailed hawks and 270 western burrowing owls, among other raptors, each year. These and other species are protected by several state and federal wildlife agencies and by federal laws. Although CBD supports wind development, the centre's Jeff Miller says the turbines in Altamont Pass are a special case.

The group filed the lawsuit, says Miller, because Alameda County's East County Board of Zoning Adjustments approved in November new long term conditional use permits for 14 Altamont Pass wind farms. It was scheduled to approve 15 more at its mid-January meeting and four more later without requiring the project owners to come up with an environmental plan to stop the bird kills. CBD has also appealed the zoning board's decision to the County Board of Supervisors, which would have been the final step for permit approval.

Reacting to both CBD's lawsuit and its appeal, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors put together an advisory committee made up of environmentalists, wind developers and county staff to draft a list of environmental conditions that would be put in place as the projects receive new conditional use permits. The advisory committee was to report to the board of supervisors at its January 29 meeting, but getting to an agreement about environmental conditions for the current projects and for repowering could take several months longer.

Miller wants the wind turbine operators to implement measures to reduce bird mortality, such as shutting down the 12% of turbines that cause 80% of the bird deaths. In addition, he wants project owners to provide some compensation, such as conservation easements to help bird populations that are being depleted, even if the offsets protect habitat someplace else.

FPL says it is already doing what it can to prevent bird mortality and has been working with the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees federal wildlife protection laws. "We're concerned about bird collisions at Altamont," says FPL's Steve Stengel, who refuses to comment on pending litigation. "And, we've been doing things to mitigate the interaction."

The mitigation includes removing some turbines in areas of potential risk, installation of nacelle screens to reduce the opportunity for birds to perch on turbines and a rodent control program. "If we eliminate or reduce the number of prey on the ground, then the raptors won't swoop in to feed on them," Stengel says. But Miller says the rodent control program is not working and, depending on which expert weighs in on the issue, the program could be making the mortality problem even worse by killing other terrestrial non-target species, such as the kit fox.

Repowering needed

Both CBD and FPL agree that repowering and replacing the huge number of existing small turbines that have perch-friendly lattice towers with new larger and slower moving turbines that sit on top of tubular bases could significantly reduce bird mortality (Windpower Monthly, February 2003). In September, the county approved a plan to replace 294 outdated turbines with 45 larger NEG Micon turbines. Miller says the county should be more cautious, however, and not issue permits until wind developers agree to a plan for repowering that also accounts for bird kills.

"Our goal is to make sure that repowering proceeds along with reducing raptor kills," Miller says. "Why go through all the expense and trouble of repowering if down the line the developers would have to move things around." FPL may also not repower as fast as CBD would like. "We have said that repowering is something we evaluate periodically and we'll continue to do that," Stengel says, pointing out it must make sense economically before the developer will proceed.

Repowering California's pre-1990 wind projects, including most of the turbines at Altamont Pass, could also play a role in meeting California's accelerated renewables portfolio standard of 20% of electricity sales by 2010, according to the CEC's Renewable Resources Development Report, released in November. The California Wind Energy Association estimates that as much as 450 MW of old projects could be repowered in the next three years.

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