Soft energy may shred Wyoming raptors

  • Wind turbines like these in Minn. would be used in Carbon County, Wyo.

    Cynthia Chea

CARBON COUNTY, Wyo.- Bruce Morley stands on Foote Creek Rim, the high ridge he hopes to cover with a forest of wind turbines, and eyes the brown haze from a power plant 150 miles away.

"Every month this project would generate as much power as a coal train a mile long," says Morley, raising his voice over the winter wind. He's the project manager for Kenetech, a California-based company that hopes to build the first phase of a 1,390-turbine, 500-megawatt windpower plant here early this summer.

The ridge straddles one of the only natural gaps in the Rockies, funneling wind through at an average speed of 21.5 mph. When the windspeed here peaks during winter days, so does the demand. Says Morley, "This is probably the best windpower site in the country."

Steve Brockman, regional biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, isn't so sure. The site chosen by Kenetech, he says, is also a popular hunting ground for raptors including bald eagles and peregrine falcons. He's concerned that these and other migratory birds will be struck and killed by the spinning blades of the turbines. At the Altamount windfarm in California, another Kenetech project, 567 raptors were confirmed killed over a two-year period.

"In general, the Service supports the idea of windpower," he says, "but that's a cause for concern, especially when there are other sites available."

Because the birds are protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Bald Eagle Protection Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Kenetech must demonstrate that it is doing everything possible to reduce raptor mortality.

At the request of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the company has already redesigned the turbines. To eliminate potential perching sites, the turbines will sit on tubular towers, not a lattice structure like those used in California.

That may not be enough. Biologists believe that many raptors are killed in Altamount because they are startled from their perches on the towers when the wind picks up and blades begin to spin.

Brockman would like to see Kenetech spend more money researching other ways to reduce raptor mortality. "So far," he says, "they've been focusing their efforts on public opinion and politics."

Morley says the company hasn't been ignoring the problem of turbines killing birds. "We've been conscientiously researching the problem and we take it seriously." Kenetech has already spent $2 million researching and mitigating avian mortality at its other wind power plants, he notes, and it will spend $300,000 a year monitoring the impacts of this project.

He says that Kenetech looked for other sites but that raptor concentrations are high wherever there is enough wind to make the project economically feasible. "You have to drill the oil well where the oil is," he says, "You just can't move to a different place that isn't windy."

Bill Harshman, Carbon County clerk, would like to see the project stay right where it is. He says that with large amounts of coal, uranium, and natural gas the county boomed during the energy crisis of the early 1980s but has been in a depression since. He hopes the project will provide the economy and the county coffers with a needed boost.

Though only 20 full-time employees will be needed once the project is built, it will pump an estimated $100 million into the region's economy and $630,000 a year into its schools.

What happens in Carbon County may have national implications. Technology developed in the last few years has made windpower costs competitive even with cheap sources of energy like coal and hydropower. The Department of Energy estimates wind may supply 10 percent of the energy in the United States by the year 2010, and it has formed a National Windpower Coordinating Committee to study the issues and come up with guidelines. Pete Poulos, the Fish and Wildlife representative on the committee says, "What's going on in Wyoming is representative of what's going on nationally."

Foote Creek Rim is a checkerboard of federal, state and private lands. State and private landowners have already approved the project, but the Bureau of Land Management wants the public to participate as well.

Comments on the preliminary environmental impact statement will be accepted until March 28. To obtain a copy, contact Area Manager, Great Divide Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management, P.O. Box 670, Rawlins, WY 82301 (307/ 324-7171).

Anders Halverson, HCN intern

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