12 Sep
2014

Proactive is the Name of the Game Regarding Birds and Bats

By, Richard Harris Podolsky, PhD

FWS currently has 18 active investigations of bird-kills at wind energy projects around the country, seven of which have been referred to the DOJ for prosecution.

Is the Low Hanging-Fruit Gone?

There is a triple-whammy emerging in the wind industry that will require developers to be far more proactive than they have been regarding bird and bat issues. The first whammy is that many of the easy-to-develop sites have already been developed. This means that new wind projects are increasingly being forced into habitats with bird, bat and other environmental issues. Second, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), in concert with the Department of Justice (DOJ), is now actively pursuing cases of non-compliance with wildlife protection law, especially those such as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) and the Migratory Bird Protection Act (MBTA). Just a few short years ago, wind developers could decide how much time and money to spend on bird and bat issues. However, the recent fines the DOJ has levied against Duke Renewable for Wyoming eagle kills sent a clear reminder that developers need to be proactive to avoid similar fines or profit-killing turbine curtailment. As of this writing, FWS currently has 18 active investigations of bird-kills at wind energy projects around the country, seven of which have been referred to the DOJ for prosecution. The third and final whammy is that the list of threatened and endangered species covered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) may soon be expanded to cover an additional 757 species.

List of Endangered Species is Expanding

Of these three changes, the expanded coverage under the ESA is the one that will have the longest lasting impact on wind power. To be clear, many of these 757 species are aquatic organisms and as such will rarely if ever be impacted by wind power development. However, two bird species pending approval, the Greater Sage Grouse (proposed endangered) and the Lesser Prairie Chicken (proposed threatened), are rangeland birds found in 11 western states with huge potential for wind power. Protecting these two species alone under the ESA would greatly impact wind power and many other energy and agriculture interests in the West. Also, in October of 2013, FWS proposedl that the Northern Long-Eared Bat be covered as endangered under the ESA. If approved for listing, the Northern Long-Eared Bat would join the Indiana Bat as a species capable of causing costly project delays or forfeiture.

Multiple environmental factors are contributing to these species’ rapid decline and possible extinction. In the 1800s, there were an estimated 16 million Greater Sage Grouse in the west. But in the intervening decades, their population has declined to only 10 percent of its original size due to a succession of land-use practices that have degraded their sagebrush steppe ecosystem. The National Wind Coordinating Committee (NWCC) formed the Sage-Grouse Research Collaborative (SGC) in 2010 to examine the potential impacts of wind energy development on sage grouse. Similarly, the Lesser Prairie Chicken population has been in free-fall for over 100 years. As with the Greater Sage Grouse, the NWCC has published a study entitled “Effects of Wind Power Development on the Population Biology of Greater Prairie-Chickens in Kansas” that describes the key findings from a seven-year research project.

Taking Eagles – But Only With a Permit

According to federal biologists, wind farms in 10 states have killed a minimum of 85 eagles since 1997, with most deaths occurring between 2008 and 2012. Golden Eagles appear to be more vulnerable than Bald Eagles with 79 of the 85 deaths being Golden Eagles. Wind farms in two states, California and Wyoming, were responsible for 58 of the 85 deaths, followed by facilities in Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Utah, Texas, Maryland and Iowa. In a move that may appear to be poorly timed on the heels of these revelations, in December 2013, the Obama administration announced it would allow companies who have been granted an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) to kill, harm or harass (“take” in the vernacular of the ESA) eagles for up to 30 years.

This extremely controversial change to the ITP process (previously an ITP was only good for 5 years) was the Interior Department’s attempt (apparently) to have the ITP permit match the lifespan of a typical wind project. But on the heels of the FWS eagle/wind power mortality data, the public perceived it as an ill-timed get-out-of-jail-free card for wind power. However when the sulfur settled, there were three devils found lurking in the details. First, this extension to 30 years only applies to projects that have gone through the arduous process of acquiring an ITP in the first place. Second, the ITP stipulates how many eagles a permitted project can “take”, and this number cannot be exceeded and must be reviewed every 5 years. Third, the fees for this extended ITP have gone up dramatically, and the proceeds are applied to eagle protection and conservation activities meant to offset the permitted take.

So rather than being a carte blanche for any developer to kill all the eagles they want for the life of a project, it is rather an expensive concession afforded to only those projects that have qualified for an ITP in the first place and only if they are in complete compliance with their take permit. Nevertheless, conservation groups such as the National Audubon Society vowed to challenge the rule, arguing it represents the government’s sanction of the killing of bald and golden eagles.  “Instead of balancing the need for conservation and renewable energy, Interior wrote the wind industry a blank check,” Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold said at the time. “It’s outrageous that the government is sanctioning the killing of America’s symbol.”

Embrace the Tiers and Avoid the Tears

At all project sites, wind developers are encouraged to follow FWS’s 5-tier voluntary program for land-based wind energy projects. These guidelines contain FWS recommendations on best practices to avoid, minimize and offset the effects of wind development on fish, wildlife, and their habitats.

  • Tier 1 entails landscape-scale screening of possible project sites, with special attention to habitats of any species of special concern.
  • Tier 2 is a more detailed site characterization of potential project sites, with special attention to species of concern, habitat fragmentation, plant communities, critical congregation areas and general information about the size and location of the project.
  • Tier 3 entails detailed field surveys to document birds, bats, wildlife and habitats on the site and to quantify risks to each species.
  • Tier 4 and 5 entail post-construction studies and research into mitigating project impacts.

According to US FWS, “Adherence to the US FWS Tiered Approach and to the FWS Land-Based Wind Power Guidelines is voluntary and does not relieve any individual, company, or agency of the responsibility to comply with laws and regulations. However, if a violation occurs the Service can consider a developer’s documented efforts to communicate with the Service and adhere to the Guidelines.”

Bird and Bat Management Tools

When it comes to proactive management of bird and bat issues at wind farms, developers are advised to conduct all requested pre-construction site assessment (Tiers 1-3) and all post-construction monitoring (Tiers 4-5), and to report any bird or bat fatalities to FWS, as required by law. Regarding site assessment, it is particularly important to conduct the Tiers 1-3 assessments at each project site. These data are crucial as they inform a developer regarding any bird or bat issues that may arise during the operation phase of the project.

To assure that utilities conduct the best field assessments, it is vital to hire certified ecologists who know all potential species, especially the endangered species and the laws protecting them. It is important to sample intensively in the event the project size changes, as often occurs. This approach helps ensure the studies will be valid regardless of changes to turbine layout. Post-construction monitoring is also critical in that it tells a developer whether bird and bat mortalities are in line with expectations established during the pre-construction assessment phase. Finally, regarding compliance, consider using AvianAudit, a new data-management tool for cataloguing and reporting bird mortalities, strikes and nesting. Developed by GeoEngineers, AvianAudit helps a wind site manager capture and track bird strike incidents in the field from any mobile device. In addition to facilitating data capture, but it also enables the user to export mortality data into FWS reporting forms that can subsequently be sent directly to FWS.

 

Dr. Richard Harris Podolsky is a certified senior ecologist and CEO of Avian Systems, a biological consulting firm that has conducted bird and bat surveys at over 70 wind farms from Maine to Hawaii. Dr. Podolsky specializes in endangered species biology and as such is familiar with all aspects of compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Podolsky can be reached at: podolsky@att.net or 207-475-5555.

12 Sep
2014

Feds List New Bird Species As Threatened – Should Wind Developers Be Worried?

 By Richard Harris Podolsky, PhD

In response to a precipitous decline of the lesser prairie-chicken (LPC), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on March 27 that it is listing the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the ESA, a “threatened” designation means the species is likely to become in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future. Threatened-species status represents a step below “endangered” and, as such, carries fewer restrictions.

Nevertheless, the listing of any species under the ESA has immediate and long-term implications for both energy and agriculture interests. And because the LPC resides in the wind-rich lands of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, rest assured that listing will impact wind developers now and until the species recovers and is de-listed or it goes extinct.

Why the fuss?
According to FWS Director Dan Ashe, “The lesser prairie-chicken is in dire straits.” Last year, the range-wide population declined to a record low of 17,616 birds, an almost 50% reduction from the 2012 population estimate. This once-abundant relative of the greater prairie-chicken, greater sage-grouse (GHG) and other “prairie grouse” species has been reduced by an estimated 84-90% from its historical levels as a result of the human-induced degradation of its preferred habitat. And with land-use pressure from energy development, and agriculture and urbanization on the increase in the West, the prognosis for LPC remains bleak.

Historically, LPC were common in sand sagebrush-bluestem and within shinnery oak-bluestem vegetation types. Currently, LPC are most common in dwarf shrub and mixed grasses on sandy soils, as well as in short-grass or mixed-grass habitats on loamy or clayey soils. In Colorado and Kansas, LPC are typically restricted to sand sagebrush communities dominated by sand dropseed, side oats grama and blue grama. Recently in the northern fringe of its range, LPC have moved into mixed-grass prairie and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields. And although all these vegetation elements are important to LPC, the thing they need more of than almost anything else is what is increasingly in short supply – large and contiguous expanses of undisturbed habitat. In order for LPC to sustain viable populations, it is estimated they need contiguous units of their preferred habitat that are a minimum of 25,000-50,000 acres in area, or coincidentally, about the size of an average wind farm in the Great Plains. A century ago, the heath hen, a New England relative of the LPC, went extinct due to similar cumulative impacts resulting from destruction of its preferred habitat.

As early as next year, this same ESA-listing scenario may play out with another increasingly rare western bird, the greater sage-grouse (GSG). However, the impact of that listing will be even more far reaching because GSG will be listed as an endangered species, as opposed to threatened species for LPC. Also, GSG and their preferred habitats are found in 11 states, as opposed to five states for LPC.

Death from above

While habitat quality and habitat size are critical, LPC live in such mortal fear of being preyed upon by hawks and eagles that they will abandon otherwise-suitable habitat simply because it contains an elevated perch that a bird of prey may someday land on and hunt from. This means that vertical structures of almost any kind, be it a wind turbine or telecommunication tower, will render otherwise-suitable habitat unusable by LPC. Studies have indicated that LPC habitat is also degraded by proximity to roadways, buildings, and oil and gas fields.

The upshot of these ecological proclivities is that, according to the FWS’ LPC Conservation Plan, once a site has been designated as LPC habitat, it is recommended that “avoidance buffers” be established between such sites and the following human impacts: 300 feet to the nearest gravel road; 600 feet to the nearest distribution line or residential building; 900 feet to the nearest oil or gas pad; 1,800 feet to the nearest transmission line; 2,250 feet to the nearest paved road; and 3,000 feet to the nearest wind farm, commercial building or tall telecommunication tower.

These large buffers were derived from careful scientific study of the observed responses of LPC to these various land-use features. The proposed buffers are particularly large for wind farms and telecommunication towers because studies showed that LPC were particularly sensitive to them. These 3,000-foot buffers will invariably result in fewer turbines and tall towers in areas that also host LPC populations or their preferred habitat.

Reducing the impact to wind developers 

Due to a special deal struck in 2013 (under section 4(d) of the ESA), the regulatory impact to wind power companies from formal ESA listing will be somewhat less than it would have been otherwise. Yet, by no means will it be “business as usual” for wind power in any of the states that host remaining populations of LPC. Specifically, the special 4(d) rule will allow the five states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the species under the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ (WAFWA) range-wide conservation plan.

The WAFWA conservation plan was developed by a consortium of experts from all five states and with input from a wide range of stakeholders. Regarding the special 4(d) WAFWA deal, Ashe said, “Working through the WAFWA range-wide conservation plan, the states remain in the driver’s seat for managing the species – more than has ever been done before – and participating landowners and developers are not impacted with additional regulatory requirements. We expect these plans to work for business, landowners and the conservation of prairie-chickens.”

Credits for the good, debits for the bad

Under the WAFWA Mitigation Framework, a metric system of debits and credits has been established whereby land-use actions that result in an impact to LPC and their habitats will generate debits, whereas land-use practices that result in impact avoidance or improvements to LPC habitat will generate WAFWA credits. In doing so, WAFWA is providing opportunities for both the exchange and conservation banking of debits and credits.

The bottom line

The listing of the LPC as a threatened species is the inevitable result of a century or more of cumulative human impacts. Therefore, wind companies considering developing or investing in any project site that may support LPC or LPC-preferred habitat are advised to conduct all requested pre-construction site assessments, perform all post-construction monitoring, report any bird fatalities to FWS as required by law, and proactively engage in the WAFWA Mitigation Framework. It is particularly vital to hire certified ecologists who know LPC ecology, have worked in the states where LPC reside, and are intimately familiar with endangered species biology, WAFWA and the ESA.

Dr. Richard H. Podolsky is a certified senior ecologist who specializes in endangered species biology and is CEO of Avian Systems, a biological consulting firm that conducts bird and bat surveys. Podolsky can be reached at podolsky©att.net or (207) 475-5555.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

12 Oct
2010

Finally! A Significant Advocate Emerges for Offshore Wind Power – Google!

Google and it’s partners are proposing an offshore transmission “spine” that will tie together a necklace of offshore wind farms strung along the mid-Atlantic.  A brilliant idea in that the New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and DC corridor among the most concentrated energy markets in the US.  I sincerely hope this project gets built.  However, expect there to be serious opposition from some environmental groups who will voice concern for migratory birds and mammals that traverse along this ocean corridor.  Yet, Google’s green business unit and their partners are providing what has been lacking in offshore wind power – leadership+cash!  A wonderful combination.

28 Apr
2010

“With this decision, we are beginning a new direction in our nation’s energy future” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

It is official, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the now notorious Cape Wind offshore wind power project for Nantucket Sound – and it only took 9+years!  While this Department of Interior approval represents the single biggest hurdle, others remain. There will certainly be lawsuits filed by the opposition and the project has yet to secure an agreement for the sale of the power it will produce. Regarding the latter, Cape Wind is presently negotiating a power purchase agreement (PPA) with National Grid. Regarding the lawsuits, it is anybodies guess how those will play out but Cape Wind plans on “breaking water” for the project later this year.

While a stunning victory for Cape Wind, as Salazar correctly stated today, “With this decision, we are beginning a new direction in our nation’s energy future.”   The impact of this approval will be seismic for other offshore wind projects in that it signals to all the potential investors who have been patiently waiting in the wings, that money invested in offshore wind projects may finally yield attractive returns.  And by all accounts the pay off will be huge because while it is more costly to build offshore, the offshore wind resource is so much more energetic offshore than on shore (wind class 5-7 offshore, compared to 3-5 onshore), that the projects can more than cover the higher, front-end costs of construction.

Now, finally, the US can begin the long road to try and catch up with Europe in terms of their long list of successful offshore wind power projects.

26 Apr
2010

Cape Wind Down to the Wire – And Perhaps the Entire Proposition of Offshore Wind Power

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to decide on the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound and is so doing possibly pass judgment on the entire proposition of ocean wind energy for the foreseeable future here in the US.  A decision not to allow Cape Wind to proceed will certainly put the Big Chill on offshore wind power.  Conversely, a Cape Wind approval would be a a huge vote of confidence for an industry that is expected to provide nearly 400 billion dollars of economic activity over the next decade.

Personally, I am in favor of approving Cape Wind.  While there are bona fide concerns regarding visual, historical, recreational, and environmental impacts, those impacts do not in my mind overwhelm the incredible benefits that will flow from opening up our near shore waters to clean energy development.  Regarding projects of the size and scope of Cape Wind, somebody’s ox always gets gored.  The only question is whether the good done is greater than the sum total of the impacts.  And by all estimates, responsible development of near shore wind resources stands to provide huge benefits for a country that claims to want to burn less fossil fuels and make strides towards energy independence.  Indeed, without tapping our near shore wind resources it is very unlikely that we will be able to provide much more than 5% of our nation’s energy from renewables and that is just not enough.

Yet, there are those who say the cost of the Cape Wind is prohibitively expensive, while others counter that while expensive, the project will still provide billions of dollars of savings over the course of its operational life.

In what many see as a giant step backwards, Salazar recently opened up much of the Mid Atlantic and Alaskan seaboards to offshore oil development.  Was the offshore oil decision a foretelling of a Cape Wind approval or rather an indication of a total collapse of resolve on the part of the Obama administration to make good on their earlier claims of wanting to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and to foster green energy?

One thing is very sure, either way Salazar/Obama go regarding Cape Wind when coupled with the recent decision approving offshore drilling will very likely tell us what we can expect regarding offshore wind’s contribution to your nation’s energy mix for the foreseeable future.

22 Mar
2010

Wind Industry Needs National Power Standard – But Will That Lead to a Net Decrease In Energy Sector Jobs?

A coalition of 29 state Governors are all calling on the federal government to mandate a national renewable energy standard. According to the coalition, this is the best and perhaps the only way to increase the role that wind power plays in the US’s energy mix. While growth has been very strong for US wind, wind’s contribution to overall electric generation is still under 2% of our total. And while the US still leads globally, Germany and especially China are coming on fast.

Global windpower capacity rose about 32 percent to 159,213 megawatts last year, according to the World Wind Energy Report 2009. U.S. capacity was the biggest with 35,159 megawatts, followed by China with 26,010 megawatts and Germany with 25,770. China will likely leap-frog the US in installed wind power in the next few years unless we match or surpass the very significant incentives China has put in place in recent years. Specifically, China in 2008 passed a stimulus package that allocated an astounding $586-billion to renewable energy projects. In 2009 a Chinese program offered a whopping 50% investment subsidies for solar power systems that were connected to their national grid.

Most states have passed some kind of renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to encourage electric generators and customers alike to move quickly towards the use of renewables. But a federal standard would replace all that with a national RPS though the fact that the south eastern states have limited onshore wind resources would have to be factored in some how. While it is unlikely that the US has the will to match these Chinese incentives – a federal RPS would at least standardize and nationalize what appears to be the will of most of the states.

But lets say we are successful and can get enough US wind power installed so that 5% or more of our electricity comes from renewables – essentially tripling our current installed base. Would such a transition result in an increase in the number of jobs, the same number of jobs, or net loss of jobs? I think it is fare to say the following – that to the extent that wind and other fuel-free renewable sources of energy replace fossil fuel based power sources that there will be a net loss of energy sector jobs. Why? Because many of the jobs associated with the refining and mining of fossil fuels would be increasing obsolete as demand for them declines. Indeed, if wind, hydro and solar really catch on and we approach not just 2% or 5% but 10% or 15% of our power from renewables, the loss of mining and refining jobs could be significant and would not be made up by the so called green jobs that Obama has been promising. The reason for this is that mega watt for mega watt renewable energy is just not as labor intensive as generating power fossil fuels. In the final analysis, renewable energy is simply more efficient than thermal energy – and while most of us should feel good about that (for example the near zero emissions from wind, hydro and solar), we may not feel good about simultaneously shedding high paying refining and mining jobs.

And the transition from fossil fuels to wind is happening at an astounding pass worldwide. This year alone the estimate from Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects a 9 percent increase in global installations of wind turbines in 2010, an addition of as much as 41 gigawatts of new generation capacity. 41 gigawatts is equivalent to 34 new nuclear power stations.

Once a significant proportion of our energy comes from wind, hydro, and solar we stand to lose a lot of mining and refining jobs in much the same way that we lost all the “dirt carters” last century when we transitioned from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. In the old days a typical city horse produced between fifteen and thirty-five pounds of manure a day and about a quart of urine and it literally took an army of dirt carters to remove it each and every day. For example, in New York City alone thousands of loads of manure were gathered every day in special “manure-yards” where another army of men were employed to keep turning the manure so that it would decompose properly.

And while job leakage is one of the last thing this economy needs right now, there is one thing that is worse for our economy – continued reliance on fuels that are; a) finite, and, b) release toxins when they are burned.

6 Mar
2010

Greater Sage Grouse Won’t Get Protected – But Devil is in the Details

Here is a nice roundup of the articles covering the decision Friday, March 5, 2010 NOT to protect the Greater Sage Grouse vis-á-vis the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  This grouse species, along with most of the closely related wild fowl complex of about 6 species that inhabit the west, are in a nearly 100 year decline.  The declines are due to a long history of habitat changes beginning with conversation of land to agriculture and cattle range and to oil and gas development.  The latest land use concern is from wind power though much of the wind power is being installed in lands already degraded by previous land conversion.  How does wind power impact grouse?  The concern is that grouse habitat would be fragmented and disturbed by construction of wind projects and that the tall towers would be perceived as perches for  birds of prey which are a major predator of grouse.

Listing of this species under the ESA could impose major delays or cancellation of wind projects proposed in grouse habitat.  As it currently stands, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are requesting that wind developers provide up to a five mile buffer around each breeding unit of grouse called a lek.  Listing under the ESA would mean that this and other requests would become requirements.  So, with the March 5 decision comes as a bit of a reprieve in that ESA status was not conferred, not yet anyway.  But here is the devil in the details – the FWS will be reevaluating whether to list the Greater Sage Grouse on a yearly basis. So, additional protections for this species could come at any time.

The best course of action for wind developers is to have a qualified team of field ornithologists conduct “lek counts” in the early spring on all their project lands.  Better to know sooner than later if your project hosts any grouse species.  The window for such surveys is mid March through the end of April.  This is when grouse and prairie chickens form their leks and conduct the group courtship rituals that includes dancing and calling males watched and evaluated by surrounding females.  The leks are most active in the hour before dawn up to about 2 hours post-sunrise.  In the end, the best dancers and singers will be the favored males that will get to mate with the most females.