US environmental impact: Sidestepping showstoppers

New US environmental impact guidelines help developers design the risk out of onshore wind projects.

Onshore wind has been on a collision course with the protected Greater Sage Grouse in certain parts of the United States

By Sam Phipps

Conservationists and wind power developers in the US have hailed the publication of new guidelines to protect wildlife and habitats from encroachment by the rapidly expanding sector.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines, which take immediate effect, will help determine the siting, design and operation of new turbines over the coming years, according to stakeholders.

The result of a five-year process with considerable public input, the guidelines are voluntary but provide best practice for site development, construction, retrofitting, repowering and decommissioning. They also promote effective communication between wind energy developers and federal, state, tribal and local conservation agencies.

Developers are urged to consult with the service as early as possible in the conception of any project. The guidelines help them identify them any species of concern that might be affected, including migratory birds, bats, bald and golden eagles and other birds of prey, and prairie and sage grouse.

Potential impacts include: collisions with wind turbines and associated infrastructure (known as “incidental take”); loss and degradation of habitat from turbines and infrastructure; fragmentation of large habitat blocks into smaller segments that may not support sensitive species; displacement and behavioural changes; and indirect effects such as increased predator populations or introduction of invasive plants.

Early consultation offers the best means of avoiding areas where development is barred or where wildlife impacts are likely to be high and difficult or costly to remedy or mitigate later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said. By consulting early, developers can also enact appropriate conservation measures and monitoring into their decisions about siting, design and operation.

Exacting process

Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said: “We’ve spent years getting them right, and I believe they will help guide the responsible development of wind energy in America for decades to come.”

After receiving more than 30,000 comments on the draft guidelines published in February 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service reconvened the advisory committee for additional public meetings in order to develop the most effective final guidelines.

David Yarnold, president & CEO of the National Audubon Society, which has worked to protect wildlife in the US for more than a century, said the guidelines would pave the way for fruitful co-operation between conservationists and the wind industry.

“We know America needs more renewable energy and wind power is a key player in that mix. But conservationists can’t have it both ways: we can’t say we need renewable energy and then say there’s nowhere safe to put the wind farms,” he said.

“By collaborating with conservationists instead of slugging it out, the wind power industry gains vital support to expand and create jobs, and wildlife gets the protection crucial for survival. These federal guidelines are a game-changer and big win for both wildlife and clean energy.”

Adherence will not relieve any individual, company or agency of the responsibility to comply with laws and regulations but if a violation does occur the Fish and Wildlife Service can consider a developer’s documented efforts to communicate with it and follow the guidelines.

Progress by tiers

The guidelines use a “tiered approach” for assessing potential adverse effects to species of concern and their habitats. This provides the opportunity for evaluation and decision-making at each stage, enabling a developer to abandon or proceed with project development, or to collect extra information if required.

It entails collecting data in increasing detail, quantifying possible risks and evaluating those risks to make siting, construction and operation decisions. The tiered approach does not require every tier, or every element within each tier, to be implemented for every project.

In the pre-construction tiers (1, 2, and 3), developers will work with the service to identify and avoid and minimise risks to species of concern. During post-construction tiers (4 and 5), developers will assess whether actions taken in earlier tiers are successful and, when necessary, take additional steps to reduce impacts.

Subsequent tiers refine and build upon issues raised and efforts undertaken in previous tiers. Each tier offers a set of questions to help the developer evaluate the potential risk associated with developing a project at the given location.

Tier 1 is preliminary site evaluation (landscape-scale screening of possible project sites); Tier 2 – site characterisation (broad characterisation of one or more potential project sites); Tier 3 – field studies to document site wildlife and habitat and predict project impacts; Tier 4 – post-construction studies to estimate impacts and Tier 5 – other post-construction studies and research.

“The country needs more wind energy for its American manufacturing and construction jobs, environmental benefits, and national energy security,” said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association.

“These guidelines set the highest standard, either voluntary or mandatory, of wildlife protection for any industry,” saidDenise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association.

“It is our hope that in conjunction with rapid training and sensible implementation, the guidelines will promote improved siting practices and increased wildlife protection that in turn will foster the continued rapid growth of wind energy across the nation.”

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Image credit: Wyoming Game and Fish Department/ Cody Beers