Are Wildlife Concerns Limiting Wind Energy in Nebraska?

Sept. 27, 2013, 6:30 a.m. ·

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Nebraska ranks high nationally for wind energy potential, but lags behind neighboring states in wind generation. It also hosts millions of migrating birds every year, including endangered species. Could those migrating birds be limiting wind energy development in Nebraska?

Hard hats are required at the base of one of Lincoln Electric System’s wind turbines north of town. Bruce Barnhouse supervises the Rokeby Generation Station. These two turbines can generate 1.3 megawatts of power. LES gets a little more than 3 percent of its total energy from wind—mostly from other facilities across the state.

Barnhouse said they’re limited by their location in Lancaster County. “There’s better locations around the state where you get better capacity.”

Dave Skipton, LES Environmental Department Supervisor, and Bruce Barnhouse, Supervisor of Rokeby Generation Station, stand beneath one turbine north of Lincoln. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

Like central Nebraska. If you look at a map of average wind speeds in the U.S., “you see this swath of really great wind, up through central U.S. That’s the same wind that birds use to migrate,” said Caroline Jezierski, Wind Energy and Wildlife Project coordinator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

That’s especially true in Nebraska, where the migration corridor narrows, concentrating millions of sandhill cranes and other shorebirds in valleys and wetlands along the Platte River. That also includes whooping cranes, an endangered species.

A map of Whooping Crane sitings in the Central Flyway in Nebraska, compiled by the Fish and Wildlife Service. See the larger map. Whooping Cranes are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Wind turbines can directly impact these birds, Jezierski said. “The blades actually spin much faster than they look. Tips can be spinning at over 200 MPH. Both birds and bats can be killed by hitting the turbine blades.”

Turbine pads and roads can also impact species like elk, mule deer, and swift fox, by eliminating or damaging their habitat. Particularly in continuous prairie or grasslands like those found in Nebraska, said Jezierski. “When you put roads in you’ve now fragmented the landscape.”

So far, there aren’t many studies on the long-term or cumulative impacts of wind farms on native wildlife. But migrating birds and endangered species are federally protected, meaning heavy fines and jail time for killing or harming them. So are wildlife concerns holding wind developers back in Nebraska?

Maria Race, environmental services director for Edison Mission Energy, doesn’t think so. Since 2009, they’ve built four wind farms in Nebraska.

“You have to get granular in places like Nebraska in order to understand on a site by site basis, exactly what kind of risks there are. It could hinder development in certain areas but not all areas,” Race said.

For example, while their Broken Bow wind farm is in central Nebraska, Race said their studies found lack of good habitat nearby means any migrating birds will likely fly high above the turbines. Any wind farm of more than 80 megawatts needs state review from Nebraska Game and Parks. But conducting environmental studies is voluntary. Still, Race said they’re basically standard in an industry that wants to be wildlife friendly.

“I think it’s in everyone’s best interest. It’s very important for us to work with agencies to come to a consensus on whether a site is good or not. Because it’s bad for whole industry if you’re operating in a site that’s not suitable,” Race said.

This map from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission shows which areas are more sensitive for wind development in Nebraska.

Caroline Jezierski’s wind and wildlife project, the Fish and Wildlife Service and others have created guidelines to help wind developers in Nebraska avoid these conflicts. While they’re voluntary, Martha Carlisle with the Fish and Wildlife Service says almost all developers discuss location and wildlife impacts with her agency and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. That’s partly because wind energy investors want a low-risk investment.

“It’s a business decision. And I think by and large most of the companies developing wind in the central flyway see it as a cost of doing business,” Carlisle said.

Most of Nebraska is suitable for large-scale wind energy development. If wildlife concerns aren’t a stumbling block, why does the state still lag far behind its neighbors? Nebraska Public Power District Sustainable Energy Manager David Rich says one challenge is wind’s relative unpredictability.

A map of average wind speeds at 80 meters high (the average height of a wind turbine). This map was created by AWS Truewind and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“You can’t store the wind up. Wind is a very good resource, but you take it when the wind is blowing,” Rich said.

In addition, Nebraska’s utilities are non-profit public power. That means unlike private companies, they can’t directly take advantage of federal wind tax credits. Rich says there’s no shortage of wind project proposals in the state, but rather buyers: Nebraska’s population is relatively small, so overall electricity needs aren’t that big, and utilities are still reluctant to shut down cheap, reliable coal plants.

And there’s another issue, says LES environmental department supervisor Dave Skipton. “The transmission system is going to have to be enhanced to deal with more wind, because quite often these wind projects are not in same location as population centers, and there’s no transmission to those locations,” Skipton said.

But things are changing. In January, Omaha Public Power District contracted to buy 200 megawatts of wind power from a farm being built in southeastern Nebraska. James Williams is Business Development Manager for Invenergy, the project developer. He said the wind energy tax credit passed by the state legislature this year helped draw interest from developers.

“The (Prairie Breeze wind farm) will be the biggest single wind project in Nebraska and I think it shows that public power is maybe taking a harder look at seeing more wind projects in state. Hopefully over the next few years, we’ll see more wind development in Nebraska,” Williams said.

But Nebraska wind energy still can’t quite compete: Lincoln Electric System recently decided to purchase 100 megawatts of wind energy from a farm in Oklahoma. The utility says ultimately, it came down to transmission and cost.