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Wind Power Surges in Texas

Wind farms deliver clean, renewable energy, but their impact on wildlife remains largely unknown.

By Karen Hastings

One day last December, sparsely populated Kenedy County managed to pack its tiny 1919 courthouse for a public hearing on a wind energy plant proposed for its undeveloped Gulf Coast ranchlands. But as residents and interested visitors talked about tax abatements, economic development and pollution-free energy, school superintendent Orville Ballard found himself thinking about the local history museum’s recent photo contest.

Kenedy County’s 4th, 5th and 6th graders — there are only about 80 kids in the entire public school system here — were each given disposable cameras last spring, and asked to take snapshots of their homes. The results made a lasting impression on Ballard, and they speak eloquently about this unique South Texas region’s rich history, culture and wildlife resources.

“If you looked at the pictures those kids took — the deer and nilgai and turkeys and their daddy on a horse — I think what the kids have here would be apparent. Wildlife is the basis of everything in this county — the culture and the lifestyle,” says Ballard, whose district includes parts of the historic Kenedy and King ranches.

“I think we have something very unique here that we have to be very, very careful to take care of.”

It’s no surprise the superintendent was musing about wildlife as Kenedy County wrestled with (as yet still unresolved) issues surrounding a proposed 500-acre wind “farm” on the short grass prairie south of Baffin Bay. The possible effect of wind farms on migrating birds, bats and other wildlife has become an important concern as Texas increases its commitment to this popular form of renewable and pollution-free energy production.

The Peñascal project is only one of several land-based wind projects proposed along the Texas Gulf Coast, home to one of the nation’s most important bird migration corridors. And the state of Texas last fall leased 11,355 acres off Galveston Island for a proposed field of fifty-three 260-foot wind turbines — one of the nation’s first offshore wind farms.

Such high-profile developments have moved wildlife issues into sharper focus:

Will rivers of migrating Neotropical birds — the bedrock of a South Texas tourism industry as well as a crucial biological phenomenon — collide with wind turbine blades, as migrating raptors have at California’s Altamont project? Will turbines, roads and the electromagnetic fields generated by power lines fragment precious habitat or scare game animals like the lesser prairie chicken away from breeding and nesting grounds? What about Mexican free-tailed bats, those night-flying, insect-eating wonders so important to the state? And will offshore towers create artificial reefs for offshore fishing, or repel dolphins, shrimp and other marine creatures?

The simple answer: Neither Texas biologists nor the wind industry knows for sure.

“The impacts from wind projects are going to depend on where they’re located and what (wildlife) resources are there,” explains Kathy Boydston, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s point person on wind energy.

“People are worried about another Altamont (along the coast). We don’t want that to happen in Texas, but we don’t have any data to show one way or another how it’s going to impact migrating birds (in Texas.)”

Already, Texas is second in the nation for turning wind into electricity, with 17 plants, 1,407 megawatts of installed capacity as of 2005 — mostly in West Texas and the Panhandle — and more on the way. Yet little research has been done here — despite warning signs from projects and studies in other states.

“There’s an overall lack of data from these existing wind farms in Texas and their impacts on wildlife,” says Boydston, who notes that TPWD has no regulatory authority over wind farms. We don’t really think they’ve had any bad impacts, but the fact is, we really don’t know.”

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose agency authorized the state’s first offshore wind power lease, says the potential benefits of wind power offset any potential harm to wildlife. His staff notes that high-rise buildings, cars and house cats kill more birds than wind turbines.

“You look at the overall good and the overall good is unequivocally environmentally positive,” Patterson says. “If we start focusing on the one environmental negative, I think we’re being very shortsighted.”

BIRDS

California — the nation’s leader in wind energy — discovered in the 1980s that wind farms and migratory birds can be a disastrous mix. At Altamont Pass, east of San Francisco, thousands of raptors — including federally protected burrowing owls, red-tailed hawks and golden eagles — have been killed in collisions with rotating turbine blades.

At least in part because of Altamont, wind towers are now sleeker and designed without the roosting perches found in older lattice-work towers. Turbines have also been redesigned to allow more space between the tips of the blades, which reduces the chance of bird impacts.

And proposed wind projects in and along the Texas Gulf Coast now must work harder to show their chosen site is safe for the millions of birds that travel the region each year between breeding and wintering grounds.

Several recent and upcoming developments in Texas:

  • TPWD has commissioned a groundbreaking study of bird migration along the southern coast. Earlier this year, scientists from the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville set up mobile radar units in key locations between Brownsville and Corpus Christi. They are studying the magnitude, range and chronology of migratory birds passing through South Texas.

    “When you look at North America and start looking at the migration routes, the southern Gulf Coast is just a natural funnel for birds that migrate from temperate areas of North America and winter in Central and South America,” says Bart Ballard, lead research scientist on the study. “A lot of those birds don’t have the flight ability to make it across the Gulf. The circum-Gulf migrants are sort of sucked around the Gulf there, and even the trans-Gulf migrants get blown in during periods of bad weather.”

    Ballard stresses that the study results — along with an upcoming TPWD map showing known breeding grounds, wetlands and other important wildlife locations in the state — will be useful in evaluating all kinds of future development for this important region, not just wind farms.

  • Louisiana-based Wind Energy Systems Technologies says it will use instruments inside the blades of a test turbine to collect bird strike data, during a preliminary phase of its offshore Galveston project. Infrared imaging technology also will be used to observe bird activity from the company’s two observation towers, says company president Herman J. Schellstede.

    “It’s been proven that the migratory body of birds can be identified coming from South America,” says Schellstede, whose first-ever state lease was announced late last year. “When this is known, to be extremely careful, we can stop the turbines for a period of time and let them pass.”

  • Biologists hired as part of the proposed Peñascal project on the Kenedy Ranch have added a second year to their study of bird activity and migration. Researchers are using field observations, radar, and acoustic and infrared technology to collect data from a 191,000-acre lease area. This new information will be analyzed to select sites for as many as 267 wind turbines, capable of producing 400 megawatts of energy. “Ours is probably the most extensive study ever done in connection with wind farms,” says Patrick Nye of Corpus Christi-based American Shoreline, which is working with Scottish Power on the Peñascal project. “Based on the studies we’ve done so far, it’s looking pretty positive that it’s going to be minimal risk to the birds.”

    But collisions during migration are not the only worry from wind farms, biologists say. Alex Hoar, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expert on wind and wildlife issues, cites a recent European study that indicates wildlife avoidance of wind turbines. While the wind industry is happy with evidence that birds will simply fly around the problem, Hoar says the study raises different questions for areas where hunting is important, habitat is dwindling or protected species dwell:

Will game birds abandon leases near wind farms? What about owls, who depend on their hearing, and may be disturbed by the whooshing of turbine blades? Could ground-nesting prairie-chickens, which are known to avoid man-made disturbances, be harmed as a species?

Heather Whitlaw, a TPWD expert on the lesser prairie-chicken, says she is concerned about the impact of Panhandle wind farms on nearby “booming grounds” or “leks” — expanses of native prairie where these grouse attract mates each spring with a resonating sound like a wobbling saw blade.

Vertical structures and man-made noise can disturb this spring ritual, which has become a tourist attraction in some communities, she says.

“We think that wind farms are potentially an issue for the lesser prairie chicken,” which is a candidate for endangered species designation, “but it’s our opinion here that we really don’t have a full suite of data to make decisions,” says Whitlaw.

BATS

While Altamont sounded alarm bells for birds in the 1980s, it wasn’t until around 2003 that biologists added a concern for another winged creature — bats — to the wind farm equation. Significant kills discovered at plants in Tennessee and West Virginia provided some of the first clues that bats also are vulnerable to turbine strikes.

In 2004, a research team led by Austin-based Bat Conservation International studied 64 turbines along a forested ridgetop in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, documenting more than 2,000 bats killed by the turbines in only six weeks. Bat kills also have been reported in Oklahoma, where wind turbines are located near a well-known bat cave.

At the Kenedy County hearing last December, BCI’s Merlin Tuttle pointed out that Texas has some of the largest bat colonies in the U.S. “Our predominant species, the Mexican free-tailed bat, is an especially fast-flying, migratory species that appears to be exceptionally vulnerable to being killed at wind power generation facilities,” he says.

Yet, despite the importance of bats in Texas, where millions cluster in limestone caves and even around urban structures like Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge, BCI knows of no tests for bat kills at any Texas wind plant. The Peñascal research team, which has been studying bird activity since 2004, only recently added equipment for tracking bats as well.

“We simply don’t know if the turbines are or are not a major source of fatalities in Texas because we simply haven’t looked,” says BCI scientist Ed Arnett.

In 2003, BCI helped form the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, which includes representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association and the U.S. Department of Energy. The purpose of the cooperative is to support research and identify solutions that prevent or minimize bat fatalities at wind farms.

For instance, the organization wants to study whether “feathering” (changing the angle of the blades so that they catch less wind) on low-wind nights will cut bat strikes. Bats are more likely to hunt when the wind is low. “Unless solutions are soon discovered to prevent or minimize this new threat,” BCI states on its Web site, “the cumulative impact on populations of bats could become extremely serious.”

OTHER WILDLIFE ISSUES

In Europe, where ranks of huge turbines often dominate the offshore view, biologists have begun asking questions about the effects of noise, vibration, maintenance boat traffic and electromagnetic fields on marine life such as dolphins and whales.

But Herman Schellstede, whose turbine towers off Galveston will be less visible from land, says he expects his wind project to offer a benefit: The creation of artificial reefs, with new potential for offshore fishing.

Towers will include a horizontal grid about 10-15 feet below water, seeded with limestone to encourage the growth of marine life, Schellstede says. Towers will be about 900 to 1,000 feet apart, cables will be buried and “you can shrimp and trawl and fish between them, it won’t be an obstruction,” he adds.

Texas is second in the nation for turning wind into electricity, with 17 plants, 1,407 megawatts of installed capacity as of 2005 — mostly in West Texas and the Panhandle.

“We’re doing this to enhance our position as a friendly power distributor. To do everything we can to enhance wildlife instead of hurt it,” Schellstede says. “It doesn’t cost us anything to speak of and is low maintenance, but it may have a great positive impact on fisheries.”

Old-style windmills have stood as icons of the Texas prairie and the state’s ranchlands for well over a century. Today, Texas’ energy policy supports the increased development of wind power as a clean, renewable source of energy for the state. In announcing one of the nation’s first offshore wind leases, officials touted Texas’ friendly attitude toward the energy industry and the limits of federal review here.

But one side-effect of this friendlier regulatory attitude, wildlife experts say, is the current knowledge gap about the impact of wind projects on the state’s important wildlife populations.

“Parks and Wildlife has no regulatory authority over wind power development. We are at the graces of these companies and private landowners who want to work with us,” says Whitlaw, who adds that she often learns of a new wind project as it appears on the skyline.

“Wind projects are pretty much being developed under a business plan and the public interest (in protecting wildlife) has not been well represented,” agrees Hoar of U.S. Fish & Wildlife. “Often by the time we hear about a project, they have a landowner agreement and power purchase agreement. The ability to evaluate one site over another is really, from a practical standpoint, impossible because they’ve locked in a site.”

On a positive note, TPWD’s Kathy Boydston says the wind energy industry in Texas is becoming more sensitive to the need for pre- and post-construction consultation as wildlife issues surface across the country.

“Most wind companies know that it’s to their benefit to check with the state resources agencies ahead of time,” she says. “They’re starting to come to us and work with us.”

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