Towering Turbines Blow Ill Wind for Birds and Bats

The state's first coastal wind turbine industrial complex is under construction in South Texas, and it is generating a storm of controversy throughout the state and nation. Improperly sited wind turbine installations are well documented killers of birds and bats, and Texas has virtually no regulation of where these facilities are located.

Between 500 and 600 towering wind turbines are planned for construction on lands administered by the Kenedy Trust and Kenedy Foundation, and the first windmills could be spinning by early next year. One facility is backed by Spanish utility giant Iberdrola and the other is being built by Australian investment firm Babcock and Brown. The combined projects could impact more than 60,000 acres of coastal prairie and wetlands, transforming vital wildlife habitat into a vast energy generation and transmission complex.

Placement of wind turbines along the lower Texas coast would have a profound impact on the region. Each tower is some 300 feet tall and each blade approximately 100 feet in length, and with the blade in the upright position the entire array looms 400 feet skyward. The blades whirl at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour and sweep over an acre of air. Even larger turbines are being built. A typical South Texas water tower that can be seen for miles is approximately 100 feet tall.

Jack Hunt, President of the King Ranch and neighbor to the Kenedy Ranch, has been a consistent opponent of coastal wind farms." It is a bad site. It is probably the worst site you could find anywhere for an industrial wind turbine facility," said Hunt.

Hunt's bleak assessment is shared by many others, and a coalition of eleven Texas based and national organizations have banded together to form the Coastal Habitat Alliance, CHA, including the King Ranch, Armstrong Ranch, American Bird Conservancy, Frontera Audubon Society and Lower Laguna Madre Foundation. The CHA opposes the proposed wind power project because it could cause significant harm to migratory birds, endangered species, wetlands and the Laguna Madre.

"One of the issues that we have is that although Texas is the leading state in terms of numbers of wind turbines there have been zero published reports of environmental studies prior to the General Land Office granting permits," said Dr. Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy based in The Plains, Virginia.

Dr. Fry is a member of the National Wind Coordinating Committee (NWCC) comprised of representatives from the utility, wind industry, environmental and government sectors. 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," Fry said. However, this figure may well be grossly underestimated as the wind industry is essentially self regulating, particularly in Texas.

"The reason why there have not been more birds killed by turbines is that they have not been built anywhere as "birdy" as the lower Texas coast," said Walt Kittelberger, President of the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation.

The need for renewable energy is widely supported, and that includes members of the CHA, but there is often a tragic hidden cost to the development of poorly sited wind turbine industrial complexes. One of the worst examples of wind farm placement is the infamous Altamont Pass east of San Francisco, California. At 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, and millions of birds migrate thru in the spring and fall. "The majority of neotropical migrants east of the Rockies first make landfall on the coast of Texas," said Dr. Andrew Kasner, Director of Bird Conservation Audubon Texas. "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?"

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 on private land.

Voluntary environmental assessments have been conducted by the companies set to erect turbines along the coastal migratory corridor in Kenedy County. The studies have been 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.

"Our studies indicate the project would have minimal impact," 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. "Small numbers of raptors and relatively few migratory birds pass thru the area proposed for wind development."

However industry funded assessments have not been as rigorous as many would like to see, and while the potential for bird kills remain a major concern, the likelihood of significant bat mortality may be even greater.

"I am unaware of any credible study that would show that this coastal wind turbine facility would not be a problem for bats," said Dr. Merlin Tuttle, President of Bat Conservation International, BCI, in Austin, Texas. Bats are of tremendous economic value to the state's agricultural sector and are worth literally millions of dollars annually. According to BCI, bats in the Texas Hill Country for example consume 1,000 tons of insects nightly.

"As we are doing more and more accurate monitoring we are finding that the problem is far more widespread than we initially realized for high bat kills going on from the Appalachians in the northeast to the prairies of Alberta, Canada and the farming areas of the central United States," said Dr. Tuttle. Wind turbine complexes such as the Maple Ridge Wind Power Project in New York kill thousands of bats annually, and Dr. Tuttle believes there may be an insidious cause.

"I think there is a lot we are yet going to discover, and the thing that is scariest is that all available evidence suggests that the bats are actually attracted to turbines," Tuttle revealed. "There are multiple hypotheses, but I personally think that the bats are queuing on low frequency sounds from the turbines. Bats use low frequency sounds to assist them in finding feeding grounds. We are conducting studies right now that will help elucidate these issues."

"We don't know nearly enough about either the risks or the solutions we would employ if they turn out to be as bad as we think they may be," Tuttle said. "Until we know more about the risks, we should not be building in high risk areas, and certainly this coastal migration flyway is one of the most high risk areas in all of North America."

A 21 mile long transmission line is proposed to link the Kenedy Ranch wind turbine complex to the grid. In an effort to establish some type of regulatory authority regarding the development of wind power projects the CHA will appear before the Public Utility Commission, PUC, on October 17 to request "intervener" status in the transmission line approval process.

It is the position of the CHA that a failure of the PUC to review the wind power projects would violate the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, which requires a regulatory process over all energy generation facilities in the coastal region, as well as guaranteed public participation in the permitting process. According to the CHA, if these requirements are not upheld, Texas could be at risk of losing millions in federal funding currently used to protect the Texas coast.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore