Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tehachapi Wind Project Under Scrutiny for Eagle Deaths

Update: The tally of known Golden Eagle deaths at the Pine Tree wind project site has risen to eight as of early 2012.

A massive wind energy facility in California's Tehachapi Mountains has killed many migratory and special status birds, including at least 6 golden eagles, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.  The bird mortality has prompted an investigation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service since the facility's bird mortality is far higher than most wind projects, according to the LA Times, and may result in prosecution if the inquiry finds violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

The 12 square-mile Pine Tree Wind Project has only been in operation for 3 years in the mountains bordering the western Mojave Desert, and its unforeseen destructive impact on bird life should be a warning sign for local and Federal officials considering applications for several more facilities in the area.

The environmental impact study for the Pine Tree Wind Project conducted before construction began had this to say about estimated bird mortality at the site:
Based on a comparison of the use of the Pine Tree project site by birds relative to other existing wind developments, fatalities are predicted to be at the low end of that quantified elsewhere for both raptors and songbirds.
How exactly did we end up estimating low impacts on special status birds and golden eagles in the environmental impact statement, and end up with a US Fish and Wildlife investigation a relatively short time later?  Since the opening of the facility, the Bureau of Land Management has received proposals for projects that would add approximately 200 square-miles of additional wind turbines in the area, including the Jawbone, Saltdale, and Barren Ridge wind projects.

A representative of the Los Angeles Audubon told the LA Times that “[w]e must deal with the problem right now because Pine Tree is only one of several industrial energy developments proposed for that area over the next five to 10 years. Combined, they have the potential to wipe this large, long-lived species out of the sky.”

Hillsides in the western Mojave Desert pictured above before the construction of 80 wind turbines for the Pine Tree Wind Energy project.  Photo from the LADWP EIS.
After construction.  Each blade is 123 feet long, and the turbines are as tall as a 30 story building.
Such massive industrialization and resulting bird deaths will have ripple effects on surrounding ecosystems--hundreds of square miles of desert and mountainous habitat--that we are only just beginning to understand.  Yet, the Department of Interior seems to be intent on fast-tracking environmental review and weakening guidelines for the wind energy industry. 

With research indicating that wind turbines currently kill at least 440,000 birds each year, a number expected to climb to 1 million birds per year by 2020, shouldn't we be taking a smarter and less regrettable renewable energy path, such as distributed solar generation?

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