Article

Environmental community split over wind farm

Some want renewable energy fast; others want to slow down to check on birds.

When the state's General Land Office signed a deal last fall to develop 50 wind turbines off the coast of Galveston, it seemed like the kind of green energy project all environmentalists would applaud. The $220 million wind farm, small as it will be, could power 40,000 homes, relying on the fuel in the air rather than on oil or coal.

But Galveston sits beneath a critical migratory bird path that links North America to wintering areas in Central and South America, and the prospect of the turbines, each rising hundreds of feet from the sea, has divided the environmental community. On the one hand are activists alarmed by global climate change who want to see renewable energy sources come online as quickly as possible. On the other are those who say flocks of migratory birds could be at risk, and they are pressing to slowthe construction of the turbines to thoroughly study their effect on birds.

The proposal is being closely watched, because this could be the first of many wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now the wind development industry, which touts its product as eco-friendly but fears a buildup of opposition over the bird issue, is trying to nip environmental concerns in the bud.... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

When the state's General Land Office signed a deal last fall to develop 50 wind turbines off the coast of Galveston, it seemed like the kind of green energy project all environmentalists would applaud. The $220 million wind farm, small as it will be, could power 40,000 homes, relying on the fuel in the air rather than on oil or coal.

But Galveston sits beneath a critical migratory bird path that links North America to wintering areas in Central and South America, and the prospect of the turbines, each rising hundreds of feet from the sea, has divided the environmental community. On the one hand are activists alarmed by global climate change who want to see renewable energy sources come online as quickly as possible. On the other are those who say flocks of migratory birds could be at risk, and they are pressing to slowthe construction of the turbines to thoroughly study their effect on birds.

The proposal is being closely watched, because this could be the first of many wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now the wind development industry, which touts its product as eco-friendly but fears a buildup of opposition over the bird issue, is trying to nip environmental concerns in the bud. Todaythe Wind Coalition, an Austin-based association of wind energy developers that counts as partners the environmental advocacy groups Public Citizen and Environmental Defense, convenes a private powwow just outside Austin of industry types, scientists and wildlife forces to clear the air.

"Wind is a growing industry here in Texas," saidMike Sloan, who heads the Wind Coalition. (Wind Energy Systems Technologies, the Louisiana company working off Galveston, is not a member of the coalition.) "This is just a kickoff meeting to begin a dialogue with the wildlife community."

If nothing else, the schism shows that the environmental community is far from monolithic, with some of the oldest environmental groups in the nation taking different sides.

"It's still only a proposed wind farm, as far as we're concerned," said Winnie Burkett, who runs the sanctuaries program for the Houston Audubon Society. The society says that it supports alternative energy sources, but it worries some of the millions of birds that migrate across the Gulf will smack into the enormous blades. Burkett said she would like wind energy projects like the one off Galveston to spend three years examining migratory patterns before building turbines.

"The majority fly 1,000 feet and over, but turbulent weather drives birds down," Burkett said. "This has the potential to impact bird populations from Alaska to eastern Canada. We have a big responsibility to make sure they get through."

Distrust of wind farms among bird conservationists dates to Altamont Pass, a decades-old California project composed of roughly 5,400 wind turbines. As many as 1,300 birds are killed there annually, including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and various owls, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit group that has sued the wind developers over the deaths.

But design innovations such as slower-moving blades and fewer perching spots have made collisions less likely, said Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington nonprofit group dedicated to building an environmentally sustainable economy. Birders were jumping to conclusions about future projects because of old history, she said:

Bird death "is not as valid a concern as it once was. It's a knee-jerk reaction."

'Trying to do it right'

"No wind farm has been in a major migratory corridor like the one in the Texas corridor," said Kathy Boydston, who is running a study at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on migratory bird patterns on the Texas coast.

In addition to the brown pelican, an endangered species that lives along the Gulf Coast and can feed as far out as the turbines, there are about 250 species, including warblers, vireos and grosbeaks, that make the trip across the Gulf, usually traveling from the northeastern United States to the Yucatán, said Cecilia Riley, an ornithologist who heads the Gulf Coast Observatory in Lake Jackson.

"I understand that (a delay for research) can be problematic for business, but we're in the business of protecting birds for all of North America," she said.

In October, the land office signed a contract to lease 17.7 square miles of land beneath the Gulf to Wind Energy Systems Technologies, also known as WEST. The deal is expected to bring in $26.5 million in royalties over 30 years to the state's public school fund. Each turbine will rise about260 feet from sea level to the center of the rotor and then a further 125 feet in blade length, according to WEST.

Wind Energy says it hopes to be generating electricity by the second quarter of 2008. But it plans to install a test turbine by the end of the year.

According to Herman Schellstede, the CEO of WEST, the turbines will have microphones in the blades to record contact and a "laser blanket" below the blades to record objects dropping to the sea; a radar 900 feet away on a small platform will identify night-flying birds. The information will be used to determine positioning of the turbines and the feasibility of the entire project.

"We're trying to do it right," he said, noting that the evidence could keep the project on track by warding off environmental lawsuits. The company is planning on spacing the turbines 1,200 feet from each other, but their positions could change depending on the test results. WEST has also suggested it could shut down the turbines for maintenance during the most intense parts of the migration.

He said WEST might make bids by the end of the year to build offshore wind farms near Freeport, Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Each farm would produce 300 megawatts, or about twice as much as the Galveston project, and would require roughly twice as many turbines, he said.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who has called the Galveston project "the next Spindletop" after the famous Texas oil gusher, said he expects the turbines to be operational in two years. "The sooner this is profitable, the sooner it's producing electricity, the better for us," he said.

With the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts mired in politics — partly because of early ambivalence from birders (the Audubon Society there has since signed on to the project) — the Galveston project is poised to be the first offshore wind farm in the nation and has become a test case for further wind power in the Gulf.

Wind energy has become hip, perhaps nowhere more so than in Texas: Austin Energy has been singled out for praise in green-living guides for its investment in wind energy, and earlier this year Whole FoodsMarket Inc., an Austin-based supermarket chain with 176 North American stores,bought enough wind power credits to cover energy use at its U.S. stores and offices. (Wind may not actually power the stores; rather, the 458,000 megawatt-hours the company purchased will be pumped into the electric grid overall, reducing the coal and natural gas used elsewhere.) The state ranks second in the country in wind energy installed (it has capacity for 1,995 megawatts, enough to power nearly 540,000 homes), according to rankings by the American Wind Energy Association, and is expected to overtake California this year. Last year the Legislature set a goal of 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2025.

Breaking new ground

While Texas' current wind farms are in the western part of the state, outside the major coastal migratory pathways, much of the coming alternative energy might spring out of the Gulf, which enjoys consistent, strong sea breezes and where the state controls about two million underwater acres.

"I can almost guarantee more offshore wind," said Patterson.

The Audubon Society and Sierra Club have been in talks with the General Land Office and Wind Energy Systems Technology, pushing for three years of research on bird migration patterns before building of the turbines begins.

The wind farm issue is a tricky one for a group such as the Sierra Club, which has recently made alternative energy one of its major planks but has traditionally acted as a staunch supporter of wildlife. The result has been tortured statements like this March press release from the Sierra Club, the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and the Houston Audubon Society:

"Conservationists in Texas today raised concerns about potential wildlife and other impacts of a proposed offshore wind energy project while stressing their interest in working with project developers to achieve the benefits of wind energy."

According to the land office, the 150 megawatts generated by the Galveston wind project would require more than 20 mil- lion barrels of oil or 6.5 million tons of coal each year, releasing 270,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

"Like other environmentalists, we want to make sure it undergoes an environmental review," said Luke Metzger, who heads Environment Texas, an arm of the Texas Public Interest Research Group. "But the global climate change problem may make the impact pale in comparison. We need this project, and we need many, many more projects just like it if we're going to wean ourselves off dirty sources of energy."

"The alternative is oil derricks, and there can't be anything worse than that," said David Foster, director of the Texas office of Clean Water Action, which favors the construction of wind farms. Then, he joked, "Evolution will weed out the stupid birds."

"We recognize there's going to be some mortality," Patterson said. "One person suggested the limit should be two birds per turbine per year. I hit more birds with my truck."


Source: http://www.statesman.com/ne...

MAY 9 2006
http://www.windaction.org/posts/2518-environmental-community-split-over-wind-farm
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