Call for new law as condors return

UNITED STATES: The California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) last month called on the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to update its 1996 policy on California condors, an endangered species making a vigorous comeback in the state's wind-friendly Tehachapi region of Kern County.

A revamped policy would begin to address the growing tension between political, environmental and economic interests in the region, whose wind farms are key to meeting California's aggressive mandate calling for 33% of renewable energy by 2020.

The pace of development has quickened recently as a new 4.5GW transmission line begins delivering renewables southward to Los Angeles and developers rush to get major wind projects connected before the federal production tax credit expires at the end of the year.

CalWEA wrote to the FWS, asking the government agency to develop a comprehensive assessment that ranks all threats to condor recovery, including contaminants such as lead from gun ammunition and diseases. The new policy should also acknowledge a forthcoming report from the California Condor Wind Energy Work Group, a collaboration of governmental agencies, environmentalists and wind-industry representatives, according to Nancy Rader, CalWEA executive director. The report is expected before the end of the year.

An Associated Press story in December linked dozens of condor deaths to fragmented lead bullets ingested by condors, which feast on carcasses left by hunters.

No deaths from wind turbines have been documented. "We think it's appropriate that the agency focuses on other sources of mortality that are proven risks," Rader said. "But they are focusing disproportionately on wind."

Kern County, where the Tehachapi Mountains produce wind currents favoured both by turbines and the majestic birds, is a booming market for wind power, as evident from the new transmission line and more than $3 billion of investment over the past three years. The condor population, which dwindled to 22 in 1987, has grown to roughly 400, including some 200 returned to the wild - many carrying GPS tracking devices.

Now the resurgent condors - with wingspans approaching three metres and a life expectancy upwards of 50 years - are reclaiming their traditional habitat, which increasingly includes parts of the vast Tehachapi region.

"It's different than a lot of environmental issues where the habitat is there and wind projects come after the fact," said Mark Tholke, vice-president of Enxco, an American affiliate of France's EDF Energies Nouvelles. "If it's true that the condors are expanding their range, they're expanding closer to the Tehachapi wind projects."

But condors are social creatures unlikely to break from their flocks, which would facilitate tracking with radar and GPS. Radar, however, is expensive and remains unproven, as sceptics insist the technology cannot yet reliably discern big birds from small airplanes.

Enxco, active in Kern County, recently began construction on the 140MW Pacific Wind project and is developing the 350MW Catalina project. The company also developed the 300MW Manzana wind farm, which it sold to Iberdrola.

Many in the wind industry share Enxco's belief that there is little risk to condors. "Grazing in the Tehachapi is minimal to nonexistent," Tholke said. "And it's just not yet clear that there is a conflict with wind and condors. It's the potential that's getting everybody excited."

Still, the Endangered Species Act looms large in the minds of developers and investors. And while the FWS is unlikely to issue permits that would allow wind projects a small quota of condor kills, known as "takes," the question of legal liability remains.

"As with any alleged violation of the act, the service would investigate," said FWS spokeswoman Lois Grunwald. "The take of an endangered species is a violation of the law and the culpable entity would be liable."