FAIRFIELD — Four wind projects in Solano County are seeking eagle taking permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, representing half of the applications pending in the California, Nevada and Klamath Falls region.
San Diego-based EDF Renewable Energy, owner of the only eagle taking permit issued in the country for its Shiloh IV wind farm in Solano County in 2014, has three of the applications.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has the fourth, seeking a permit for the Solano Wind Project.
The increase in permit requests is largely being explained by the Fish & Wildlife Service as a reaction to a new civil enforcement effort, which resulted in settlements with three companies representing 14 wind farms over the past 14 months.
“We don’t have any influence on whether they get to operate, only whether they get to take (eagles) legally or illegally,” said Heather Beeler, eagle permit coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The settlements resulted in $50,000 in penalties plus a commitment by the companies to spend a minimum of $1.7 million over the next three years for peer-reviewed research and development technologies or practices that will reduce or eliminate risks to eagles from wind turbines, the federal agency reported.
Starting Thursday, fines for illegal taking under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act will increase from $5,000 to $12,500.
“If you are a real bad player, it could be a criminal settlement,” Beeler said.
The criminal penalties can include two years in prison and a $500,000 fine for each incident.
One of those companies that reached a civil settlement was EDF, involving seven of its operations, including its Shiloh II, III, IV and Windfarm V in Solano County.
EDF is now seeking taking permits for those Solano County operations, the Fish & Wildlife Service reported.
The permits allow a designated number of eagles to be wounded or killed by the turbines or related operations, such as power lines. After that, the firm will have to meet certain mitigation measures, and just buying and setting aside habitat does not qualify.
“For us, buying habitat is not enough,” Beeler said. “They have to take the extra step of stopping a bird from being killed someplace else or growing a new bird someplace else.”
Right now, the mitigation is largely relegated to retrofitting power poles and lines to keep the birds from being electrocuted, Beeler said. Research is ongoing to find ways to keep eagles from flying into the turbines, she said.
Beeler said Solano County does not have a large eagle population, and compared to other wind resource areas has proven to be one of the most ideal wind-generating areas in terms of energy production and low eagle taking numbers.
A national proposal that could increase the number of eagles allowed to be taken in certain areas – primarily bald eagles – is not likely to affect California. Beeler said she does not see any taking increases allowed in the area.
“Right now I could authorize the taking of seven bald eagles without mitigation,” said Beeler, and that is for the entire region. “Golden eagles are set at zero, so we cannot authorize any taking without mitigation.”