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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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Is the answer blowin' in the wind?
Turbines are greener, but can be deadly to birds
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A wind turbine near Montfort, Wis.: How many birds and bats do they kill?
A wind turbine near Montfort, Wis.: How many birds and bats do they kill?
Credit:Andy Olsen

A proposed bill to streamline regulations for small to mid-size wind energy developments is backed by clean energy advocates but questioned by groups seeking to ensure the safety of wildlife.

The bill, coauthored by state Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) and Rep. Jim Solestki (D-Green Bay), seeks to limit local control over the construction of new wind farm projects by directing the Public Service Commission (PSC) to create uniform approval standards.

A nearly identical bill was proposed in the last legislative session. Committee hearings were held, but the session ended before any action was taken.

"I think there is some good reason to have more uniform standards," says Karen Etter Hale, executive secretary of the Madison Audubon Association. "My concern is, this bill, like the bill last year, does not address any bird or other wildlife issues. Audubon's position, at the national level and the local level, is that we are in favor of wind power. But only if it's sited well."

Under current regulations, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must do an environmental review before wind towers are approved only if the project is over 100 megawatts, usually in the 50- to 60-tower range.

Smaller endeavors, like a six-tower project approved for northwestern Dane County, can have such a review if the municipality or energy company requests one. But, the draft bill reads, local governmental "ordinances may not be more restrictive than the PSC rules." The bill also requires a local government to act on a "complete" wind power application within 90 days; if it doesn't, "the application is considered approved."

The new bill, as written, does not include environmental factors as part of the approval and siting process. Instead, it directs the PSC to consider such factors as potential wind power interference with radio, telephone and television service; setback distances from other structures; and connections to the power grid.

State environmental groups support the bill.

"Developers are ready to put steel in the ground," to build wind towers, says Ryan Schryver of Clean Wisconsin. But a "patchwork of ever-changing policies" makes the state less than great for new wind power projects. "So they're taking their projects to other states. That means the jobs, and the economic benefits that go with them, are leaving as well."

Currently, renewable energy accounts for less than 5% of the electric power used in Wisconsin, with wind accounting for most of that. Schryver says 600 megawatts of Wisconsin wind power is ready to be constructed, mostly in smaller projects.

That's a lot of energy. In comparison, the coal-burning electric generating plant Alliant Energy wanted to build in Cassville would have provided 300 megawatts at peak capacity. That plant was not approved (see "PSC Takes a Stand Against Coal," 11/14/08).

Yet plans for other coal-burning plants and plant expansions are in the works. An infusion of new wind energy, Schryver argues, would make it much harder for utilities to proceed with these plans.

Wind power is not without environmental costs. Initially, the projects are very construction-intense. Access roads must be built, cranes and other heavy equipment are brought in, and huge concrete pads - up to four-feet deep - are poured. And then, new power lines must be erected to connect the wind towers to the energy grid.

But once this work is done, almost all of the land that's been disturbed can be used for activities like agriculture. Meanwhile, the wind blows, the turbines spin, and electricity is produced without the greenhouse gases of fossil-fuel-burning operations.

The towers, which can exceed 400 feet in height, do kill birds and bats. The DNR is now creating siting guidelines for wind towers, especially with regard to their potential for affecting wildlife.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, says Steve Ugoretz of the DNR's Office of Energy, large numbers of raptors were found dead at the base of California wind towers. Current research, Ugoretz says, "is finding that more bats [than birds] are being hit and killed" by wind turbines, especially east of the Mississippi River. Bats seem to be attracted to the spinning turbine blades.

Dane County's first-ever wind energy project, with six turbines, was approved in 2007 by the town of Springfield. It was set to go on-line by 2010, and would have generated enough electricity to run 2,500 homes a year. The plan was to connect the electric output to existing Madison Gas and Electric transmission lines.

But Acciona North America, the company behind this project, has put it on hold. Acciona spokesman Eric Schneider says it's focusing instead on a larger (about 60-tower) project in Calumet County. The Dane County plan could be revived down the road. Says Schneider, "There's definitely excellent wind potential in the southern part of the state."

The DNR's Shari Koslowsky says an environmental review of the Dane County site found no local endangered or threatened species. There was a question about wildlife habitats overlapping the project area, but a field visit showed the proposed site was already in use for agriculture and development.

There are ways to minimize the effects on wildlife. Consider the 41 turbines of the Cedar Ridge Wind Farm just northeast of Horicon Marsh that went on-line in 2008. Cedar Ridge is Alliant Energy's first company-owned wind facility.

Horicon Marsh is listed as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands, which represents 158 nations. Nearly 300 bird species live in the marsh at least part of the year, and major migrations of waterfowl and songbirds come through it. These include a dozen species listed by the state as endangered or threatened (among them the red-necked grebe and great egret), and another two dozen listed as "species of concern."

Worried about the danger to birds, Audubon and Clean Wisconsin urged that the wind towers be moved back from the marsh edge. They were, though some are still quite close. Now, studies are being done to see just how many birds the turbines may be killing.

"It's very difficult to predict the level of mortality," says Koslowsky, explaining why the studies are being done after the turbines went up. "We expect some mortality at all sites. But to predict which birds and exactly how many? We're not able to do that yet."

And over the next two decades, according to Alliant Energy, the 41 Cedar Ridge turbines should offset million of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from coal-burning plants.

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