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Wind farms and wildlife

Fri, Feb 27th, 2009
Posted in Commentary

The wind itself may be free, but harnessing it for electrical power involves the expenses of wind turbine production, purchase of options on land for the placement of turbines and provision of service roads and substations. Indirect expenses may be a decrease in land values around wind farms and a decrease in agricultural land. Non-monetary expenses include noise, spoilage of scenic views and impacts on wildlife, especially on birds.

Wind energy production affects birds (and bats) through direct mortality from collisions with turbine blades and towers, which kill 10,000 to 40,000 birds each year across the country. Secondary impacts on birds, other wildlife and plant communities include destruction and fragmentation of habitats by the turbines, access roads and other infrastructure. Impacts are most severe when farms are erected along migration routes and in prime breeding areas.

EcoEnergy Wind, an Illinois-based company, has purchased options on 23,000 acres of land in Fillmore County between Greenleafton and Harmony to erect 134 turbines rising more than 262 feet from the ground. This project, called EcoHarmony West Wind, is expected to produce sufficient energy for more than 53,000 households. Plans are eventually to expand this farm from Harmony to Canton and then to Mabel.

Wind energy is a valuable, non-polluting, renewable power source, capable of reducing our reliance on fossil-fuel burning power plants that damage the environment through greenhouse gas emissions and other sorts of pollution. Greenhouse gases are the major contributors to global warming, which threatens the extinction of large numbers of bird and other wildlife species through rising sea levels, drowning millions of acres of wetland habitat; drying up of prairie pothole wetlands; frequent and severe droughts, floods, hurricanes and forest fires. Migratory birds, some of which are already migrating earlier in response to increasing temperatures, may find that the timing of their arrival on breeding grounds no longer coincides with the availability of particular foods they need to survive and raise their young.

Habitat loss is the greatest single threat to birds and other wildlife, and wind farms do destroy habitat. However, by mitigating the destruction from global warming, the positive effects of wind power relating to wildlife are far greater than the negative. Nevertheless, avoiding negative impacts is an important part of green energy and developers of wind energy should cooperate with scientists, natural resource specialists and concerned citizens in finding ways to minimize harm.

Some design changes have already reduced avian and bat mortality related to collisions. Early turbines were mounted on lattice towers 60 to 80 feet high, with rotors that turned at 60 to 80 revolutions per minute. The height of the towers placed the fast-revolving blades directly in the path of many migrating birds and the lattice towers provided perching areas attractive to hawks. Today's wind machines are generally 200 to 260 feet high and their rotors turn slower, at 11 to 28 revolutions per minute.

In Minnesota, the state regulates commercial wind farms. A company must apply for a Certificate of Need from the Public Utilities Commission that shows the project meets the long-term energy goals of the state. EcoHarmony West Wind has already received its Certificate. It has also applied to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (eqb.state.mn.us/) for a Site Permit, a section of which states, "An applicant for a Site Permit shall include with the application an analysis of the potential impacts of the project, proposed mitigative measures and any adverse environmental effects that cannot be avoided, in the following areas." Among the 23 areas listed are wetlands, vegetation, wildlife and rare and unique natural resources. The required public hearing for the Site Permit will likely occur sometime in late spring. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in spring of 2010.

Fillmore County residents who have concerns about the impacts of wind farms should study EcoHarmony West Wind's permit once it is posted on the EQB website and should also attend the public hearing.

Nancy Overcott writes about nature and the environment. She can be reached at news@fillmorcountyjournal.com

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