New U.S. Rules to Protect Bats and Birds Create Uncertainty in Growing Industry
By RYAN TRACY WSJ.com 12/10/11
New federal rules on how wind-power operators must manage threats to wildlife could create another challenge for the fast-growing industry as it seeks more footholds in the U.S. energy landscape.
The death of an endangered bat in September at a wind farm in Pennsylvania was the latest in a series of incidents that have caught the attention of regulators and conservation-minded scientists, who worry that large numbers of bats, bald eagles and other birds are being killed by wind turbines' spinning blades.
In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to publish new guidelines telling wind-farm operators how to measure the danger to wildlife at new sites and how to monitor existing sites. The guidelines are voluntary, but those who don't follow them are more likely to face fines or penalties if their turbines kill an animal protected by federal law.
Already, some operators are changing their plans in anticipation of more scrutiny. Last month, Pattern Energy Group dropped plans for a 44-turbine wind farm near Sacramento, Calif., saying it couldn't sufficiently protect bald eagles and other birds. The company is developing other projects where it expects to encounter less wildlife, and testing radar that could detect birds or bats.
Renewable power is popular in the Obama administration for its potential benefits in addressing global warming, but "there is no free lunch," said George Ledec, an ecologist for the World Bank who studies wind farms. "Low carbon does not mean low overall environmental or social impacts."
Wind plants with a combined output of more than 8,000 megawatts were under construction in the third quarter of 2011, the most since 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The U.S. now has more than 43,000 megawatts of wind capacity, double the level three years ago, generating roughly 3% of the nation's electricity.
The growth has brought challenges, including battles over land use and questions in Congress over whether to extend a federal tax credit that has spurred construction and expires in 2012. Like oil and gas companies, which have long fought to keep animals off the endangered-species list, wind and solar companies now find dealing with Washington's environmental enforcers a routine part of business.
"We haven't had too many wind turbines heretofore in the country, so we are learning about it as we go," said David Cottingham of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
John M. Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said the new Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines, which have been released in draft form, are "workable." But he said the government should make it clear that developers who abide by them won't face stiff penalties. "There has to be an incentive there," he said.
The service's Mr. Cottingham agreed and said that if companies follow the guidelines, "we are going to make you a low enforcement priority."
One of the first large U.S. wind projects—in California's Altamont Pass—found itself in the spotlight in 2004 after a state study said the roughly 5,000 turbines at the site were killing thousands of birds, including protected eagles, hawks and owls. The operators of the wind farm agreed to cut bird deaths in half as part of a settlement with environmental groups.
Since then, companies have grown more sensitive to the issue, and some hire biologists to regularly scour the fields under the turbine blades.
That's how Duke Energy Corp. discovered the carcass of a quarter-ounce Indiana bat this fall at its North Allegheny wind farm in western Pennsylvania. The company temporarily turned off its turbines at night during the bats' migration season.
The two other endangered animals confirmed killed in recent years by wind turbines were also Indiana bats, which were found in 2009 at the Fowler Ridge wind farm in Benton County, Ind.
Duke Energy and Fowler Ridge operator BP PLC said they were working with the Fish and Wildlife Service and might modify operations when bats are active or work to preserve bat habitats.
Bats are already under threat from white-nose disease, which has decimated populations in the East and threatened an important source of insect control for U.S. farmers.
Some scientists believe thousands of bats, including non-endangered species like the Seminole bat, are dying each year in wind turbines, based on available counts of bat deaths at existing wind farms.
"Most biologists will tell you that over time and cumulatively, [bats] won't be able to sustain these fatality rates," said Ed Arnett, the director of science and policy for Bat Conservation International.
Mr. Arnett said his research found wind farms could cut back on bat deaths significantly while losing less than 1% of power output by focusing on danger periods such as migration season and the hours after a major storm when bats like to come out.
Mr. Anderson, of the wind-industry trade group, said projecting sound waves to deter bats from flying near turbines also looked promising.