When it comes to clean energy projects like wind farms, where people stand on a proposal sometimes depends on where they sit. Take the case of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, certainly a champion of green causes — until someone proposed building a wind farm off Cape Cod, where the liberal lion liked to do his sailing.
He fought the wind farm until he died.
Now comes a proposal to build an electricity-generating wind farm in remote western Palm Beach County, near Lake Okeechobee. It would be the first in Florida — perhaps surprising considering the state is known for its powerful winds. (States like Texas, Iowa, California, Illinois and Minnesota are dotted with wind farms.) The operation would generate power that could be sold to Florida Power & Light. And it would generate jobs.
The Palm Beach County Commission actually likes the idea, as do the nearby Glades tri-city communities of Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee.
But there is a complication. The site, 13,000 acres of private sugar land between Lake Okeechobee and the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, is located in the main flight path for North American migratory birds. And that has led to opposition from an unlikely source: the nature-loving local Audubon and Sierra Club chapters.
They fear that the whirring blades of the windmills would will turn migrating birds into tropical mincemeat.
“If we lose 15 to 25 snail kites because of the turbines, it could mean extinction of these species,” said Drew Martin Conservation Chair for the Loxahatchee group of the Sierra Club.
Although the Sugarland Wind Project has won approval from the County Commission, it still faces a number of obstacles. The company needs state and federal environmental permits to proceed. There’s also the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And it’s a given that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take a closer look at the impact on wildlife.
“There needs to be a three-year study to account for the droughts and to get a baseline of what the birds are doing,” said Steve Horowitz, president of the Friends of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
Sugarland isn’t backing down. It has hired its own professional ornithologists on the ground to study avian species and behavior.
In a public relations brochure, Sugarland claimed cars and pets kill more birds than wind turbines. In a given year, the company says, a single wind turbine might kill three birds.
And indeed, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report from 2005 seemed to bolster the claim that wind turbines aren’t as bad for birds as some other things. The study, cited by the American Wind Energy Association trade group, said bird losses due to wind farms amount to about 150,000 a year compared to buildings (550 million), and power lines (130 million).
Last July, environmentalists got a gigantic boost from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In a carefully worded 15-page letter to the Wind Capital Group, which is behind the project, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that more time was needed to gauge the impact on threatened and endangered species of the wetlands area.
One solution that might appease some environmentalist is for the Sugarland project to install a detection device on each turbine that would trigger an on-and-off switch when approaching flocks of birds and bats fly near the rotating blades. It’s known as the Merlin system. It uses the same technology that NASA employed to ensure the safety of its shuttle missions from incoming flocks of birds.