Duke Energy Renewables recently pled guilty to breaking the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act by killing more than 160 birds, including 14 golden eagles. It was the first such criminal conviction.
Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior announced on 6 December that wind and other renewable-energy companies can apply for "take", or kill, permits for eagles for 30 years rather than the previous five years. The announcement caused an outcry among birds advocacy groups.
Duke will pay a $1 million fine. It also agreed to mitigation measures that will cost about $600,000 yearly, according to court documents. Mitigation might include radar, shutting down turbines during migration season and employing field biologists.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is reportedly investigating 18 more unrelated bird law violations by wind farms. It has referred six of them to the US Department of Justice for prosecution.
"[This trend] has the potential to be quite significant," said Amy Grace, lead analyst for North American wind at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). "It will definitely have an impact on where projects are developed and financed." Legal fees for fighting a case may exceed any fine, she said.
Regarding the outstanding investigations, Peter Kelley, vicepresident for public affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, said: "There's clearly a lot of scrutiny as wind energy gets bigger."
Still, Grace noted that Duke's $1 million fine is only a tiny fraction of the company's capital expenditure cost for the two projects in question as estimated by BNEF. Duke's conviction related to its 99MW Campbell Hill and 200MW Top of the World projects in Wyoming between 2009 and 2013.
To put the fine and mitigation costs in context, Grace noted that since 2009 the price-tag of a single 2.3MW Siemens turbine has fallen by almost $1 million. "[Duke's fine] is significant, but it's not huge," she said.
"[Overall] the possibility of a conviction is a big question for developers, especially small developers — it's an unknown cost and any unknown cost is worrying, especially with the industry [being] so competitive," Grace concluded. Within 24 months, as part of the agreement Duke must also apply to the FWS for an eagle take permit at each of the two projects.
Matt DaPrato of IHS-Emerging Energy Research, however, did not see the Duke case as so significant. No company wants to be prosecuted, he said, but wildlife is already a major focus of developers, who have become far more sophisticated about the issue in recent years. "Wildlife impacts is just one more layer in the matrix of what makes a good project," he says. Still, he concedes that some developers may not now want to shoulder the risk of a birds prosecution.