Wind farm could endanger birding paradise, some fear

2014-01-19T00:00:00Z 2014-01-31T11:13:00Z Wind farm could endanger birding paradise, some fearBy Doug Kreutz Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A planned $100 million wind-energy farm west of Willcox could be lethal to birds in an area famous for its annual birding festival, critics say.

Proponents of renewable energy are lauding the project, which will have about 30 giant wind turbines on 200 acres. The towers will be about 460 feet high.

“I’m not a fan. I’d rather not have the wind farm there,” said Homer Hansen, chairman of the Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature festival, which concludes today. During the festival, participants spot a wide variety of birds including spectacular sandhill cranes.

“Migrants and various raptors could be affected, but my biggest concern is for the pair of golden eagles that nest in the Winchester Mountains” near the wind-farm site, Hansen said. “They have a very large range they cover for their territory — dozens of square miles or more.”

He’s also concerned for the welfare of the cranes and other species in the Willcox Playa wetland area about 15 miles from the farm site.

People might think that birds could spot and avoid the blades of wind turbines, but bird experts say that’s not always the case.

“With large raptors like golden eagles, their eyes are pretty much down on the ground looking for prey,” said Michael Hutchins, national coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign. “They won’t necessarily detect the rapidly turning blades, and they’re subsequently killed.”

Hutchins said a recent study found that wind farms kill about 572,000 birds a year.

A spokesman for the company building the farm near Willcox acknowledged the danger to birds, but said extensive efforts have been taken to mitigate the threat.

“The goal is zero kill of birds,” said Jon Kilberg, president of Houston-based Torch Renewable Energy, which formed a company called Red Horse Wind 2 LLC to build and manage the $100 million project. The company broke ground in December.

“We’ve had an ornithologist on site for over one year,” Kilberg said. “We’ve done physical bird counts. We’ve done nest surveys. We’ve flown helicopters under the guidance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure we would not impact local raptor species.

“We’ve sited the farm to be away from sources of food and sources of water” that attract birds, Kilberg said. “We will have an eagle-conservation plan because there are golden eagles nesting outside of the site by several miles. We expect no raptor deaths.”

POWER FOR 30,000 HOMES

The wind farm, which has been approved by Cochise County planning and zoning commissioners, is in an area known as Allen Flat about 20 miles west of Willcox.

The project will employ about 150 people during construction and five full-time workers when the farm is in operation. Work is expected to proceed in late spring or early summer, and the site could be up and running sometime in 2015, Kilberg said.

He said the farm will produce 51 megawatts of power — enough to provide energy to about 30,000 homes. Tucson Electric Power will purchase energy produced at the site, which also will include a solar-energy component.

Joseph Barrios, spokesman for TEP, said the wind-farm site is ideal for the utility’s purposes because it offers “really promising wind-energy resources” and is within 10 miles of one of TEP’s substations.

“In the interest of providing reliable service and supporting renewable-energy technology, we have looked to diversify to include wind energy,” Barrios said.

Concerning possible threats to birds in the area, Barrios noted that TEP isn’t directly involved in the design or permitting of the wind farm.

“But farm operators wouldn’t be able to operate — and we wouldn’t be able to purchase the power — unless it was within the scope of all applicable laws and regulations,” he said.

LIMITING BIRD DEATHS

Hutchins, of the American Bird Conservancy, said it’s critical for the wind farm to take specific steps to limit the threat to birds.

Important steps include using lights that are the least likely to attract birds and considering temporary shutdowns during bird migration periods, he said.

“Generally, we support wind-energy development and other renewables,” he said. “But our mission is to conserve native bird populations, and there’s a reason to be concerned about projects like this one.”

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@azstarnet.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz

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