A controversial proposal to erect 38 wind power turbines near the Lewis-Thurston county line has a surprising supporter in its corner — the Black Hills Audubon Society.
The electricity-generating wind turbines are known to cause deaths to birds who fail to navigate outside of the path of the spinning blades. Those blades can reach up to 486 feet in rotational diameter while sitting atop a pole that can stand up to 344 feet on its own. Nationally, wind power turbines have been linked to mass deaths of whooping cranes and other migratory birds, and locally there is inflated concern for the marbled murrelet, which has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1992.
A statement provided to The Chronicle on Thursday by the Black Hills Audubon Society read, “Because wind energy contributes to reducing fossil-fuel carbon emissions — thus reducing the threat of global warming to wildlife, including birds — we are willing to support wind energy projects as long as sufficient mitigation is provided for the protection of birds and other wildlife."
Sam Merrill, conservation committee chair for the Black Hills Audubon Society, noted that the group’s support does not come without qualifications and lingering concerns about direct impacts to local bird populations.
“There’s known habitat and of course there is a danger. Any erection of turbines is bound to endanger wildlife,” said Merrill, in reference to the documented existence of marbled murrelet habitat near the southern edge of the project area. “The one that we know of, that is the marbled murrelet, which is a seabird that nests far inland in old growth forests. That’s the one that we have concentrated on the most.”
The first proposal submitted by RES-Americas, the company behind the energy project, sought approval for 51 turbines, with the majority of those stations landing in Lewis County. After concerns were raised by various parties, the number of proposed turbines was reduced to 38 by eliminating all of the stations proposed for property in Thurston County. If the current proposal is permitted, the project would be situated on Weyerhaeuser property located approximately 15 miles southeast of the Centralia TransAlta plant.
In December, RES-Americas Senior Development Manager Sean Bell told The Chronicle that the plans for the turbines within Thurston County were abandoned due to compromising features of the northern ridgeline. According to Bell, those issues included concerns expressed by Joint Base Lewis-McChord and fears about the potential for those turbines to kill or seriously injure birds in the area.
However, according to some members of the Black Hills Audubon Society, the northern turbine sites did not represent the worst of the dangers for marbled murrelets or other birds.
“There was an area that is near the southern edge of turbines that is near habitat for one particular endangered bird and we were concerned about that,” said Merrill. “They were unable to cancel any of the turbines in that area, and it turns out they canceled them in the northern part, the ones that would be Thurston County, instead.”
When that change of proposed plans was announced in early December, one member of the Black Hills Audubon Society, Maria Ruth, wrote a letter to The Chronicle in an attempt to set the record straight.
That letter read in part, “The change in plans does not address the concerns we expressed to RES-Americas about the marbled murrelet … Specifically, we are concerned about the turbines at the eastern end of the southern line of turbines. These are adjacent to occupied murrelet nesting habitat on private and federal lands. RES-Americas’ own radar surveys of marbled murrelets in the project area estimate a take of two to three murrelets per year for the next 30 years. This rate of collisions could completely eliminate the use of this important nest site in an area where few other nest sites exist for murrelets.”
According to Ruth, RES-Americas expressed an unwillingness to move those problematic turbines further from known marbled murrelet territory because those turbines are expected to create the most energy due to prevailing high winds in those areas.
In her letter, Ruth added that, “Black Hills Audubon supports the development of wind-energy projects in Washington provided the impact on the marbled murrelet is adequately minimized and ‘take’ is fully mitigated.”
Merrill says that the Black Hills Audubon Society has engaged in lengthy and ongoing discussions with RES-Americas in order to determine the best path forward and noted that the company has made non-specific commitments to mitigate harmful impacts to birds. However, he says that specific mitigation commitments have proven difficult to nail down.
“They are working on that with various government agencies so we don’t have that yet from what I’ve heard, but at least they are working on it,” said Merrill, who has a hierarchy of preferred mitigation efforts that RES-Americas could implement. “The first thing is the design and moving them as far as location is concerned. Down the ladder of desirability is to simply obtain other lands somewhere else and preserve them. That would be a way to try to make up for it, but of course you’ve got to make sure that it’s land that wouldn’t wind up being preserved anyway.”
One mitigating approach to preventing bird deaths that Merrill finds particularly promising is a sensor designed to shutdown the spinning blades when birds are nearby. He says RES-Americas has committed to using the technology in Lewis County.
“A lot of the effort that RES-Americas has done is in their Identiflight technology,” said Merrill, who explained that the sensors can recognize a bird the size of an eagle as it approaches and then stop the turbines until the bird, or birds, have safely passed by.
Still, Merrill is aware that the IdentiFlight technology is not a cure all for the dangers to birds presented by wind turbines.
“I don’t know of a specific species that would be more concern over the other but birds do migrate, and, of course, most birds are smaller than eagles,” said Merrill.
As currently drawn up, the Skookumchuck Wind Energy project is expected to produce 136.9 megawatts of renewable energy. Bell noted that upon completion of the project, the turbine system will be sold to Puget Sound Energy.
“The current hope is it will be permitted, approved and ready to go in 2018,” Bell told The Chronicle in December.
The Black Hills Audubon Society is a chapter of the National Audubon Society and represents approximately 1,300 local members hailing from Lewis, Thurston and Mason counties.