Controversial Coastal Wind Farm Set for Construction in South Texas This Year

The state's first coastal wind turbine industrial park is set for construction later this year in South Texas and is generating a storm of controversy throughout the state and nation. The site is Kenedy Ranch property between Corpus Christi and Raymondville. The initial project backed by Spanish utility giant Iberdrola calls for the installation of 87 huge wind turbines with blades reaching some 400 feet skyward. Australian investment firm Babcock and Brown are also said to be planning to build 157 turbines in the coastal county.

"It is a project that really has no next step. We are all set up and waiting for turbine delivery. We could begin construction as early as the fourth quarter 2007," said Jan Johnson, Communication Director for PPM energy of Oregon, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iberdrola and represents their interests in the United States.

"Is the race to be the first company to construct a wind farm along the Texas coast a race to be the next Altamont, or worse?" questioned David Newstead, president of Coastal Bend Audubon. "The lower Texas coast is the most important migratory corridor in the continent where millions of birds and bats pass thru twice yearly."

Texas leads the nation in wind power with 2,000 plus turbines cranking out more than 2,768 megawatts which is approximately three percent of the power produced in the state, according to the American Wind Energy Association, an industry trade association. However, Texas has little or no regulation regarding the proper placement of wind farms or for monitoring the facilities operations. The wind industry in Texas is essentially self regulating.

"Texas leads the nation when it comes to turning an environmental blind eye to issues surrounding wind power," said Dr. Merlin Tuttle, president of Bat Conservation International in Austin"

The need for renewable, clean energy is widely endorsed, but there is often a tragic hidden cost to the development of wind farms in areas that are frequented by birds and bats such as Navarre and Tarifa in Spain, and the Smola Archipelago off the coast of Norway where the white-tailed eagle population was decimated by a poorly sited wind farm. One of the United States worst examples of wind farm placement is the infamous Altamont Pass east of San Francisco, California, where half the farm was temporarily shut down following legal threats form concerned citizens. A 2004 report by the California Energy Commission found that 880 to 1,300 raptors were killed at Altamont every year, including red-tailed hawks and golden eagles.

Two major flyways, the Central and Mississippi, converge along the coastal plains of southernmost Texas. "I think it is the worst place in the United States to build wind towers," stated Victor Emanuel of Austin, president of Victor Emanuel Tours, the world's largest company specializing in birding tours. Millions of birds migrate thru in the spring and fall, and the Rio Grande Valley, which boasts 513 species of birds, is the top birding destination in the United States. Ecotourism annually attracts some 125,000 visitors to the area boosting the local economy by upwards of 125 million dollars.

"The majority of neotroical migrants east of the Rockies first make landfall on the coast of Texas," said Dr. Andrew Kasner, Director of Bird Conservation Audubon Texas. "In other words –millions of birds cross or travel along the Texas coast every spring and fall. If severe impacts to these birds occurred in Texas, there could be ramifications for populations on a continental scale. The question is do we want to risk this uncertainty in an area with such sensitivity?"

"I don't see anybody who wouldn't agree that a wind power facility in the middle of America's largest migratory flyway isn't a major hazard," said Dr. Tuttle.

Despite the potential loss of native and migratory birds and bats along coastal wind farm sites and massive fragmentation of habitat, neither the United States Fish and Wildlife Service or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department require environmental impact studies or permitting for wind farm construction. "The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has no regulatory authority over either wind farms or where they are placed," said Robert Cook, Director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

A voluntary environmental assessment has been conducted by the company set to erect turbines along the coastal migratory corridor in Kenedy County. The study was reviewed by both the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists. Neither agency has filed an objection to site construction.

"Obviously, if we go to losing birds there we will be involved. I'll tell you that right up front. There's no question about that," said Cook.

Dale Hale, Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service testified before the House Natural Resources Committee on May 1 recommending a change in law allowing his agency more enforcement latitude. "We need early involvement, pre-construction, to talk about what the impacts might be," Hall said. "Right now...we can't until it is already happening."

"The companies consistently do their studies and tell us there won't be any problems, but at every site that has had a serious problem we were told there wouldn't be any," said Dr. Tuttle.

The Texas Wind and Wildlife Alliance is a group of concerned citizens attempting to develop guidelines for site selection and monitoring the wind farm industry. "Right now there are no guidelines. The wind industry voluntarily began to work with conservation groups in 2005," said Donna Hoffman, Communications Coordinator with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

"We hope to come out with guidelines for this that could be a model for other states as well," Hoffman added. "Of course the wildlife and habitat community would prefer that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also enforce the guidelines."

House Bill 2794, sponsored by Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, would have required the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to establish a permit process, but the bill failed.

Dr. Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy based in The Plains, Virginia testified several days ago in Washington D.C. before the same House committee as Director Hall. Dr. Fry is a member of the National Wind Coordinating Committee (NWCC) comprised of representatives from the utility, wind industry, environmental and government sectors. "There has been much discussion and almost no real action on the part of the wind industry to resolve bird collision issues," Fry testified. According to the NWCC, wind turbines in the United States kill between 30,000 to 60,000 birds a year, including golden eagles and more than 50 species of songbirds. "At the current mortality rate and growth rate of the wind industry, by 2030 a projected 900,000 to 1.8 million birds would be killed per year by wind turbines, unless protective measures are implemented." However, this figure may well be grossly underestimated.

"The primary thing that concerns me in Texas is that companies routinely tell us that they have more than 1,400 turbines in Texas, and they have never assessed any mortality yet," said Dr. Tuttle. "So why would we be worried about the future? And yet these companies consistently refuse to allow credible scientists access to the facilities to check and determine if there is a threat or not. If they really believed there wasn't a threat they would open up with open arms. Of course when a blade traveling at nearly 200 miles per hour hits a painted bunting there isn't a whole lot left."

The initial 87 turbine installation set for Kenedy Ranch property, likely to be operational sometime next year, is the first phase of what General Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson envisions as hundreds perhaps thousands of wind turbines along coastal Texas private property and state owned offshore areas. Landowners are currently receiving approximately $12,000 per turbine annually. Texas owns offshore waters up to 10.36 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico and the General Land Office, which controls the state's submerged lands, stands to reap substantial monies from two proposed offshore wind farms, the proceeds of which funnel into the states Permanent School Fund.

A year ago Patterson announced a proposal to build the biggest offshore wind farm in the nation after leasing 39,000 acres of submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Padre Island and south of Baffin Bay. This is the state's second agreement for an offshore farm the first being offshore from Galveston. Touting what he called a "wind rush" Patterson stated, "When completed, this will be the biggest offshore wind farm in U.S. history. Like I said in 2003, the great Texas wind rush is on."

But exactly where is Texas rushing with no effective regulatory structure at the federal, state or local level?

Jack Hunt, CEO of the King Ranch and neighbor to the Kenedy Ranch, has been a consistent opponent of coastal wind farms. "We think from a landowner's standpoint that this is an inappropriate use of lands in that area," Hunt said. "Our concern is a general concern about the cumulative impact on the coast. What we are talking about here is a massive installation of wind machines along the coast which would literally devastate the coast not only in the terms of wildlife and migratory birds but in terms of "viewshed" and everything else that is important to people along the coast." Viewshed refers to the fact that these enormous turbines towering more than 400 feet, or roughly three times the height of a typical water tower, can ruin the vistas of neighboring landowners and coastal visitors.

"Wind energy has the potential to help offset our consumption of non-renewable and green house gas-emitting sources of energy such as coal," said Newstead. "However, wind projects have the potential to cause significant problems for wildlife. Until meaningful regulations are in place and followed, consumers cannot distinguish between truly "green," and merely "green-washed."

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore