Research to begin on wind farm and bird collisions
by Erika McDonald
Plans to build a wind farm on Pelican Island in Galveston have conservation groups concerned about the safety of millions of birds that pass through the area during migration.
The 150-megawatt wind farm would primarily serve the Port of Galveston, which is backing the plan as part of an effort officials refer to as the "greening" of the port. Currently, plans are to construct five to seven 74-megawatt turbines on the island. Port officials hoped conservation groups would support the development of clean energy technologies.
But when members of the Houston Audubon Society caught wind of the project, they began raising questions about avian mortality. The problem is receiving national attention as reports of bird deaths from collisions with turbines at other wind farms have environmental groups around the world torn between a desire for renewable energy and wildlife conservation.
Winnie Burkett, sanctuary manager for HAS, said two factors make constructing a wind farm at Pelican Island a risky endeavor. The location serves as habitat for 12 to 15 species of colonial water bird. US Fish and Wildlife Services have documented as many as 30,000 nesting pairs at one time. Pelican Island is also arguably the most heavily populated bird migration corridor in the country. Especially during the spring and fall, 21 neotropical migratory species flock by the millions, often traveling at night. The sheer number of birds that occupy the flyway could result in high mortality.
The island is also home to such sensitive species as the blue heron, the grey egret and the brown pelican. The brown pelican, from which the island get its name, is currently listed as endangered. Burkett described Pelican Island as "America’s gateway" for migrating birds.
"Making sure this flyway is safe is not only critical to Galveston, it’s critical to Ohio, Michigan and other (bird) destinations," she said. "What we do on the Texas coast impacts bird populations across the country."
However, other factors make the location a prime spot to construct a wind farm. According to George King, environmental consultant for the port, strong frequent trade winds from the southeast are an untapped resource for the area.
He also said Galveston’s increasing population and industrial density created a viable market for wind power. The proposed farm would provide 100 megawatts for the port and its related industry and the remaining 50 megawatts would provide power to some of Centerpoint Energy’s residential and commercial customers in Galveston.
King said that when it comes to deaths from bird collision, wind turbines pose less of a risk than tall buildings and communications towers.
Still, King said he and other port officials recognize the seriousness of the avian mortality issue and said they intend to work closely with conservation groups and government agencies to assess the risks.
King argued that there are mitigation technologies that reduce the risk to birds. For example, painting the blades with reflective paint helps increase visibility. Another alternative is to attach whistles to the ends of the blades so that birds can hear the turbines when visibility is low. There is also the possibility of employing sophisticated monitors to track migration patterns and turn the turbines off during peak migration.
But all of this will take a great deal of research said US Fish and Wildlife Services spokesman Phil Glass. The agency will be working with the port and conservation groups to make sure the placement of the turbines does not violate the Migratory Bird Act. The agency plans to monitor the risk assessment phase of the project. The groups are asking for at least one year of study.
If the monitoring reveals a high level of collisions, both the Audubon Society and the USFWS will oppose the project.
"No one wants to discourage the development of wind energy, so we’re keeping an open mind," Glass said. "But the Migratory Bird Act is pretty straight forward and we need to gather as much information as possible to make an informed decision."
The port has already adjusted its plans over concern for bird kills. Engineers reduced the number of turbines from 35 to seven and moved their location to an area that experiences less bird traffic than the site originally proposed.
The changes came after a preliminary study that lasted two weeks. Burkett said more detailed study would require at least one year to take into account seasonal changes, wind patterns and bird prey populations that affect migratory patterns.
For now, both sides are hoping to balance concerns about avian mortality with the environmental benefits of supporting wind energy development throughout the state.
"The Pelican Island project is ideal as a pilot project in the state’s effort to increase revenue by advancing clean and renewable energy," King said. "It’s essential that we develop, not only the technologies, but the production capacity to support that. That would be a benefit to this region."
In fact, how the project takes shape will set precedent for further energy development along the Gulf Coast. The Texas General Land Office is behind a massive push to advance renewable energy as state revenues from oil and gas are slipping.
The first phase of the Pelican Island wind farm will begin with a risk assessment study of bird collisions in March.