A California wind farm will be the first in the nation to take advantage of a new federal policy that allows it to inadvertently kill legally-protected eagles without paying a penalty.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced last week that the 3,500-acre Shiloh IV Wind Project near Rio Vista in Solano County is set to receive a five-year permit that will let it kill five golden or bald eagles without getting slapped down. In exchange, the project owners agreed to take mitigation measures to lessen the chance of that happening.
Shiloh will retrofit 133 power poles at its farm, where 50 turbines generate 102 megawatts of electricity, to prevent electrocution of the birds.
Wind farms have been killing eagles and other birds for years; it’s kind of hard not to when dozens of giant turbines with whirling blades are situated in windy areas near their habitats. But environmentalists who feel protective of the birds also recognize that wind power is a promising alternative to carbon-based energy sources.
Many have opted to seek mitigation measures as a tradeoff to prevent even more dead birds. But a healthy skepticism remains. “We think the permit process is one way to do that,” Audubon Renewable Energy Director for California Garry George told CNN. “We hope it provides conservation, but we don't know if it will.”
What they do know is that birds are being killed in much larger numbers than are currently acknowledged. A study by the FWS published early last year in the Journal of Raptor Research identified 67 bald and golden eagle deaths from wind turbines over five years, but said the actual number was almost certainly much higher.
The vast majority of deaths were in California and Wyoming. The study relied on voluntary reporting by wind farm owners and excluded the most deadly locale of all, a cluster of wind farms in California’s Altamont Pass, where between 60 and 95 eagles a year reportedly die. It is known to some as the “Cuisinart of the Air.”
The Interior Department announced at the end of last year that it would also be issuing 30-year permits to give wind farms investors some reassurance. The permits would be reviewed every five years. The rule was first proposed in April 2012 and more than 120 conservation, wildlife and animal protection groups petitioned (pdf) against it during a 90-day comment period. It was also opposed (pdf) by the National Park Service.
California has doubled its wind power capacity since 2002. As of September 2012, wind supplied 5% of the state’s electricity needs. That is crucial because utilities are required by state law to get 33% of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2020.