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.
“We know it’s a very expensive system but if Sugarland installed the system, then we would lead the charge to bring their wind farm ourselves, ” Horowitz said.
Sugarland has proposed something different — having section of the wind farm shut down during peak times for two months when birds flock to flooded areas.
“The farmers do crop rotation every three years and flood the fields and grow rice to kill the nematodes [roundworms]. That’s when we can curtail our operations” said Geoff West, Wind Capital Group Environmental Manager for the South East.
But that option doesn’t sit well with Audubon of Florida.
Nationally, the Audubon Club supports wind energy as a means to protect bird species from the threat of global warming. But the national organization doesn’t have a problem with local chapters going their own way on local projects.
For Audubon of Florida, the risk is not only about direct bird deaths but the impact the 114 turbines spread across the environmentally sensitive area in the Everglades would have on the nesting and migration patterns of threatened and endangered wildlife.
“If you draw a triangle around the proposed area for the wind farm, it will be right in between Lake Okeechobee, the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge and the Everglades. The truth is, bottom line, more data is needed,” said Jane Graham, Everglades Policy Advisor for Audubon of Florida.
Until recently, wind farm companies claimed Florida didn’t have enough strong, predictable, on-shore winds to warrant the investment. But turbine technology has become more efficient.
“We know the new generation of towers will absolutely withstand hurricanes and run efficiently. The problem is the massive turbine blades create a vacuum. The birds flying by can then be pulled into them,” Horowitz said.
The electricity produced from each wind turbine would travel through underground cables to a substation, where it would be boosted and hooked up to a transmission line and then to the Florida Power & Light electrical grid system serving the community.
How much power would it produce? Enough to supply 60,000 homes with clean and cheap energy, Sugarland says. Looming over nearly all wind farms in the country is a federal tax credit, which is scheduled to expire Dec. 31.
Known as the PTC (Production Tax Credit) it provides an income tax credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first 10 years of electricity produced from utility-scale turbines. In the past, when the PTC wasn’t renewed, the construction of wind farms was dramatically curtailed.
Recently, President Obama urged Congress to extend the tax credits, saying that would save 37,000 jobs in the field of clean-energy production, an estimate that is based on reports from industry officials.
Some in the area see the wind farm as a potential economic boon. Backers say they anticipate their $300 million dollar investment will create 250 temporary positions and about two-dozen permanent jobs, something much needed in an area where nearly half the population is unemployed.
While environmentalist say those job numbers are relatively small in the grand scheme, that attitude has emboldened supporters of the project.
“I got citizens that need jobs and clothes on their backs and health insurance and everything else,” said Pahokee Mayor J.P. Sasser, “so birds don’t make my top ten lists.”