CEC Adopts Bird Guidelines for Windmills, OKs Russell Project

By Published On: September 28, 2007

Seeking to alleviate one of the most contentious obstacles to wind energy development, the California Energy Commission September 26 adopted voluntary guidelines to protect birds and bats from being killed by wind turbines. “We spent a long time getting to where we are today” presiding commissioner John Geesman acknowledged. The California Guidelines for Reducing Impacts to Birds and Bats from Wind Energy Development culminate an intensive two-year collaborative process co-sponsored by the Energy Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game. Wind energy developers, biologists, environmental groups, local agencies and legal experts participated in eight workshops to help design what are widely viewed as the most comprehensive guidelines in the nation. “The overall goal is to minimize impacts to birds and bats while encouraging wind projects” to help California achieve its goal of generating 20 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable resources by 2010, said Misa Ward, CEC project manager. The most commercially viable renewable energy resource wind power is critical to helping the state meet its 2010 renewables portfolio standard and the CEC’s longer term goal of 33 percent by 2020, the commission stressed. Yet public alarm about collisions between wind turbine blades and raptors, songbirds, and bats – particularly at Altamont, the nation’s first commercial wind farm – have held up local agency approvals for new and repowered wind projects. The guidelines are intended to assist counties in assessing and mitigating the potential environmental impacts of wind farms and expedite approval of permits for new and repowered projects. The guidelines also provide wind developers with detailed guidance to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act and federal, state and local wildlife protection laws for threatened, endangered, and migratory species. If followed, they should provide regulatory certainty for wind energy developers in California, the commission stressed. “The focus is to work with local lead agencies as early as possible to avoid impacts before they happen,” said Scott Flynn, the Fish and Game project manager. He noted that his agency just obtained funding for 30 new positions to assist in CEQA review. Nonetheless, some wind energy companies expressed concern that the guidelines would result in regulatory delays and additional risks and expenses that could lead lenders to withdraw financing for wind projects. Moreover, they warned that wind project opponents may use the guidelines to file lawsuits to delay or block approval of operating permits as happened at Altamont. “The focus on local impacts while the planet burns from global warming makes the cliché ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ seem apt,” said, Nancy Rader, California Wind Energy Association executive director. She urged the commission to revise the guidelines to state that they apply only to new wind projects and not retroactively to existing wind farms or those under development. The guidelines prescribe five basic steps to assess bird and bat activity at proposed wind energy sites and identify potential impacts: -Gather preliminary information and conduct site screening. -Determine statutory and permitting requirements. -Collect pre-permitting data and conduct biological monitoring using standardized protocols. -Identify potential impacts and mitigation. -Implement measures to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts on wildlife from wind turbines. The guidelines are intended to be flexible to accommodate local and regional considerations and adjusted to address the specific site conditions. That may include frequency and type of bird and bat use, terrain, and availability of scientific data, the commission acknowledged. The wind industry’s concern over applying the guidelines retroactively is not appropriate because while the guidelines are voluntary, compliance with the underlying state and federal wildlife protection laws is not, said Julia Levin of the National Audubon Society. Geesman noted that the guidelines are a living document that will need to be adjusted. However, he stressed that the Energy Commission cannot dictate or influence the decisions of local permitting agencies that have discretion over siting wind farms and other land use decisions in their jurisdictions. “We’ve used every word we could find in the Thesaurus to make clear these guidelines are voluntary,” Geesman stressed. “We trust in the good judgment and prudent application of these guidelines by local decision makers.” In other action, the Energy Commission gave final approval to Calpine’s controversial Russell City Energy Center despite concerns that the plant’s plume could endanger pilots. The 600 MW natural gas-fired power plant was originally approved in 2002 but tabled because of Calpine’s inability to secure a power purchase contract. Calpine and GE Energy Financial Services have since entered a power purchase agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric. The Energy Commission approved construction of the power plant at a larger 18.8-acre industrial site about 1-1/2 miles from the Hayward airport, which is used for flight training and business flights. The Calpine plant could begin operating as early as 2010. The Energy Commission delayed a decision two weeks ago after a last minute request from the Federal Aviation Administration to assess the safety risk posed by the power plant to aircraft operating out of the Hayward airport. Because of congestion from aircraft at nearby San Francisco and Oakland airports, pilots would be prevented from flying above 1,000 feet over the Hayward power plant and thus may not be able to avoid flying directly over the invisible plume, the FAA warned. The FAA subsequently conducted a statistical safety risk analysis and determined that the power plant posed a very low risk to pilots because most pilots flying out of Hayward airport would not come within a mile of the plant. “It won’t be catastrophic if an aircraft flies over it,” David Butterfield, an FAA manager said. “But that hasn’t been substantiated by a flight test,” he said. However, the FAA’s risk analysis was contested by Gary Cathey, chief of the California Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Office. In flight tests for CalTrans over the Sutter Power Plant in Yuba County, the effects from the exhaust plume at 1,000 feet and at 800 feet caused aircraft to became unstable and waiver with partial wing stall, he said. “It would definitely affect the aircraft maneuverability and could be fatal for a student pilot.” Alameda County officials and Hayward citizens also strongly objected to the location of the power plant, which is near public schools, residences, and the county’s redevelopment area slated for residential development. They also objected that the Energy Commission had failed to consider the cumulative impact of siting the Calpine plant and the proposed Eastshore Power Plant in the same vicinity. But commissioners Geesman and Jeffrey Byron said their agency had conducted extensive public hearings on the power plant, which is important in meeting the state energy policy to replace coal-fired generation with cleaner natural gas.

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