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Wind, Bats, and Birds
Region-Wide HCP for Wind Energy Projects
Once an oddity, wind farms with their rows of tall, spare towers supporting slowly rotating blades, are becoming a common sight in the Midwest. Demand for renewable energy is fueling rapid growth of the industry. Wind generation capacity in the U.S. more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2006, doubling about every three years. The Upper Midwest is home to some of the most rapid growth. Of the top 10 states adding new wind capacity in 2009, three were Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota. Missouri posted the fastest growth rate in wind development of any state during the second quarter of 2009 with wind power installations expanding in the state by 99 percent.
Wind as a renewable energy source benefits fish and wildlife resources, but not without a cost. Wind farm construction, along with new transmission lines and access roads, may destroy and degrade fish and wildlife habitat, especially if new farms are in undeveloped areas. Construction of these facilities near water may degrade lakes and rivers. Most significantly, though, rotating turbines kill birds and bats.
To meet the demand for rapid approval of wind energy plants, yet ensure conservation of listed species, the Service and a coalition of eight states, the Conservation Fund, and representatives of the wind energy industry are preparing a Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP). This is an incidental take permitting program for 30 federally listed species that may be impacted by future wind energy projects in the Midwest Region.
Unexpectedly, researchers are finding that wind turbines kill large numbers of bats. Before 2001, birds were the focus of wind turbine mortality studies and few dead bats were reported. Once researchers started finding dead bats, however, study designs were adjusted to better document bat mortality. Since then, numbers of dead bats found at wind facilities have grown.
Unfortunately, many sites suitable for wind power in the Upper Midwest are in the core maternity range of the endangered Indiana bat. Additionally, some of the windiest areas within the Upper Midwest encompass the ecologically sensitive Great Lakes shorelines. These shorelines provide critical nesting habitat for the federally-endangered piping plover and stop-over habitat for a number of migratory songbirds of concern, including the federally endangered Kirtland's warbler.
At a time when rapid growth of renewable energy is necessary to address global warming, the Service has the unenviable position of raising these concerns by way of our Endangered Species Act responsibilities.
Since the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions seemingly overrides all other environmental concerns; politicians, industry advocates, and environmentalists have questioned our need to review and address impacts from wind energy development. We do have a legal mandate under the Endangered Species Act. But more importantly, wind power capacity can increase rapidly and we can conserve biodiversity, we do not need to choose between the two. Wind energy development is challenging, but impacts can be avoided and reduced through thoughtful siting, design, additional research, and mitigation. These are the goals of the MSHCP.
Planning for the MSHCP has been in the works for about a year and the coalition recently received a $3.3 million HCP Planning Assistance grant to begin the real work. We need much more information to adequately conserve listed species. For bats, as an example, we need to understand why they fly around wind turbines and how they’re being killed before we can adjust design and sighting to avoid impacts. Some of the money from the HCP Planning Grant will fund studies to address these and other unknowns. The HCP grant provides an excellent opportunity to make progress in finding ways to safely develop wind facilities near listed species habitats with minimal cost to the developer.
Often, there is no federal regulator for wind power projects, which has led to a patchwork of state and local regulations within the Midwest region. As a result, wind development proposals have met with protracted, unpredictable, and fragmented responses from the natural resource agencies. Besides frustrating and costing developers; slow, fragmented responses lead to missed opportunities for conserving fish and wildlife resources. The MSHCP is a means of uniting state and federal resource agencies so that we can provide unified, landscape-scale conservation recommendations.
For the wind industry, a multistate approach ensures consistent application of species conservation measures (i.e., avoidance, minimization and mitigation measures) across the states and among Service offices. This, in turn, prevents unnecessary delays and provides an “even playing field” for developers. For the Service and developers, obtaining a permit will be easier and faster than preparing numerous, single, site-specific HCPs. Developers will know beforehand the conditions of the permit, which will provide them better tools for site selection and project design.
An eight-state HCP is a huge undertaking because of the number of players, the number of species included, and the size of the area. Initially it will be slower than a small HCP, but the result will benefit all parties, allowing wind energy facilities to flourish while protecting, conserving, and recoverying threatened and endangered species.
Last updated: April 1, 2014