DONNA HOFFMAN, Local Contributor at statesman.com, February 14, 2008
Texas needs smart energy solutions. We must transition our economy toward increased efficiency and greater reliance on renewable energy sources – wind, solar, and geothermal in order to address climate change, air pollution, and high fuel cost.
The wind industry is leading this transition. Nationwide, wind power grew by 45% in 2007. For the past two years, Texas has ranked number one in wind power with 4,356 megawatts at wind farms in West Texas and the Panhandle. Wind projects under construction will add another 1,238 megawatts.
The State of Texas should encourage and promote this growth in wind power, and it should also take measures to assure that the wind industry avoids negative impacts to wildlife populations and habitat.
Any industrial activity, even a wind power project, presents the potential for negative environmental impacts, but appropriate regulations or guidelines and technological advances may eliminate or reduce those impacts.
Wind turbine technology has improved greatly since the days when turbine designs were deadly to bird populations. The National Wind Coordinating Committee has mediated national discussions between the wind industry and wildlife biologists that have produced best practices for siting and operating wind projects. Nineteen states have voluntary wind project guidelines. Several states refer to the thorough U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Guidelines that are presently undergoing industry challenge. One state, Hawaii, requires permits for wind projects.
In Texas, the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has been in negotiations between wind industry representatives and conservation groups to create voluntary siting guidelines. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has been coordinating negotiations. In order to satisfy investors and attorneys, wind companies would consult with TPWD and adhere to the guidelines.
The Sierra Club recommends the guidelines include: pre-construction research linked to habitat sensitivity criteria, data sharing for wildlife studies, pre-construction mitigation, post-construction research, and operational mitigation.
Unfortunately, the negotiation process is currently at a stalemate.
Conservation groups believe that guidelines are necessary to address concerns about: large, diverse migratory and residential bird populations and sensitive habitats along the Gulf Coast; bat habitat in the Texas Hill Country; and unique wilderness viewsheds like Enchanted Rock.
The lack of guidelines became an issue in September, 2005 when the General Land Office announced its first offshore wind lease – 11,355-acres, seven miles off Galveston Island. This first offshore wind farm in Texas, was set to be built in the most populated migratory bird corridor of North America! The developer Wind Energy Systems Technologies (WEST) has placed a meteorological tower on the site and are said to be collecting wind data. The company contracted a bird study design from a well-respected bird scientist for this project, but has not begun the study. WEST has since leased four more offshore sites in the Gulf from offshore of the southern tip of the state to offshore of the upper coast.
Last year, wildlife groups (including American Bird Conservancy, which has been highly supportive of wind energy) joined the King Ranch to form the Coastal Habitat Alliance (CHA). CHA is concerned about two wind farms — Babcock & Brown and PPM’s projects in the sensitive wetlands of northern Kenedy County. The CHA has filed suit in federal court to force the State of Texas to abide by its agreement with the federal government not to build energy generation facilities in the Coastal Management Zone without a permitting process.
Guidelines based on site sensitivity could steer the wind industry away from problematic sites early in the scoping process and save wind developers time and money.
The Sierra Club has developed a Wind Siting Advisory and will continue to work for voluntary guidelines at TPWD. If that process does not succeed, then prospects for an enforceable permitting process will increase.
The wind industry in Texas needs to make a choice: Do they reject reasonable guidelines for project siting and operation and risk continued controversy and perhaps restrictive regulations? Or do they make a good faith effort to negotiate guidelines that will allow the industry to progress while addressing valid concerns?
We hope the wind industry will choose to remove the albatross by accepting and adhering to meaningful siting and operations guidelines in Texas.
Hoffman is the communications coordinator of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.