United States

United States

Learning sensitivity for success

Working closely with environmental organisations on site selection and a willingness to flex around their concerns, such as the plight of a rare nocturnal squirrel, seems to be the key to trouble free wind plant approval, while even a small project can get stopped in its tracks if challenged

In September Michael Kitchen managed to raise the first turbine of his 1 MW Mariah Energy project in the Columbia Hills of southern Washington despite strong and long-time opposition by the local Audubon Society's Dennis White. Kitchen finally won Klickitat County approval to build the 1 MW in February after seven-and-half years of sometimes bitter debate with White over bird migration routes and with the Yakama Nation over tribal resources. Even as Kitchen personally pieces together the vintage ESI-54 wind turbines and Klickitat Public Utilities buys their output, an appeal by White to the County Superior Court is pending (Windpower Monthly, May 2001), leaving a murky cloud over the project's future.

One hundred miles east on the Oregon and Washington border, FPL Energy finally gained a site certificate from Oregon's Energy Facility Siting Council on September 14, months after receiving approvals for the Washington part of the nearly 300 MW Stateline wind project. In a region of the US that prides itself on the quality of its landscape, FPL, like other wind developers, is finding that the environment is a big factor when planning, designing and installing a large wind project.

The FPL project is moving forward and still may be completed before the year is out, but after years of feuding with White over locating his project in an area rife with raptors, Kitchen's small development could still be stopped dead in its tracks with the stroke of a judge's pen. The difference between the two projects probably has a lot to do with location, but it also could be the way FPL has gone about the business of paying attention to environmental concerns.

Squirrel in the works

Stalling FPL's approval in Oregon was a small nocturnal squirrel that the state's Fish and Wildlife agency had listed as endangered in January 2000. Not only did the presence of the Washington Ground Squirrel slow down the certification, it also eventually caused FPL to build around squirrel colonies and downsize the project in Washington to 179.52 MW from 200 MW and in Oregon to 82.84 MW from 100 MW (Windpower Monthly, August 2001).

Even the approval from Walla Walla County in Washington was conditioned on FPL Energy conducting bird migration studies that the local Audubon Society felt were necessary before they could sign off on the project. Seventy-two of the 450 Vestas turbines had to wait installation until the night radar studies were complete.

Still, FPL has managed to work around and resolve environmental concerns. Joan Brown, Stateline project manager, says one reason is that FPL made contact with anyone who could possibly have a stake in the project and began to form relationships before moving very far along. "We made an effort to contact all the environmental groups, including the Audubon Society, as we began this project," she says. "We found out what their concerns are and systematically began to resolve those concerns."

Studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act encompass local avian, botanical, wildlife and cultural issues. These studies are done by professionals, but Brown says people who live nearby are familiar with the local area and also want to be consulted about proposed turbine locations as the project is designed. That is why FPL held up on construction for a part of the project while conducting another bird study.

And it changed directions again when site surveys found the Washington Ground Squirrel. One of the difficulties of detecting the squirrels is that they are nocturnal and only show their heads above ground four or five months during the year. But when biologists discovered squirrel colonies, FPL began further studies and ultimately set about redesigning and downsizing the project. FPL's Carol Clawson says the developer expects to come back with a new project design this fall that could bring the project back up to 300 MW or even larger.

White would say the difference between the two projects is location. As an environmentalist, he is not opposed to wind power development. In fact, he says that projects like the Vansycle project, which was constructed in 1998 on the same ridge as Stateline, is a model development because it does not stand in the way of migratory bird flyways. Yet he has had a hand in stopping, or at least stalling, two other projects planned for the bluffs above his orchards on the north side of the Columbia River.

Even today, although Kitchen agreed to 34 raptor mitigation measures set out by Washington's fish and wildlife agency and is wrapping the lattice towers of his turbines with fibreglass to prevent raptors from finding a perch, White still believes the project is in the wrong place. He wants this and future wind projects to move east, where White says there are fewer raptors.

While Kitchen continues his battle with the Audubon's White, FPL Energy is continuing its relationship with its local chapter. "The Audubon Society is a part of our technical advisory review team and that process is ongoing," Brown says. "We talk with them about changes and expansions to the project and welcome their input."

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