Wind energy guidelines are a promising start

Wind turbines. Courtesy NREL.

Recently a group of conservationists, wind developers, Native American tribes, and state environmental officials sent a list of recommendations to the Secretary of the Interior on how best to avoid and minimize wind energy impacts on wildlife habitats.  Now that new bills are emerging in Congress that address solar and wind generation on public lands, these recommendations can help shape policies that ensure renewable energy development happens in the right places and at the right pace, or are “smart from the start.”

The 22-member Wind Turbine Guidelines Federal Advisory Committee (FAC) was set up in 2007, and was designed to seek a consensus on voluntary guidelines that wind companies could follow when screening sites, constructing turbines, and conducting post-construction studies on species and habitats.  The guidelines are designed to reduce ecological damage, help developers comply with applicable environmental laws, improve knowledge of wildlife and habitat impacts, and produce cost-effective studies.

The recommendations are broken into five tiers to identify potential problems and develop solutions for site and project conflicts:

  1. Landscapelevel screening of possible project sites;
  2. A broad look at one or more potential project sites;
  3. Field studies of wildlife conditions and to predict project impacts
  4. Studies of wildlife fatalities post-construction; and
  5. Other studies to evaluate impacts on habitat.

Prior to coming to The Wilderness Society as the new BLM Action Center biologist, I kept an eye on this process and believe these recommendations offer some opportunities for the future. The work of the wind FAC represents a positive first step towards avoiding the mistakes of past energy development on both private and public lands. In addition, it is very encouraging that the many different interest groups that were involved were successful at finding consensus to ensure that wind development is not only clean, but green. 

Nonetheless, these are only voluntary guidelines, and more work needs to be done on everyone’s part — including the Department of the Interior, renewable energy developers, and conservation groups, to make sure that a proper permitting system is in place that fully protects lands and the habitats they serve. 

The Wilderness Society, along with our partner organizations, have been watching the wind FAC very closely as it could help lead our understanding of guided development and the Obama administration’s vision of how it will be implemented.

Guided development means looking first to the areas that are most appropriate for renewable energy development when deciding where to site large wind turbines, utility-scale solar panels, or geothermal facilities.  Guided development can mean many different things, from selecting brownfields or other disturbed lands for renewable energy development, identifying zones that have significant renewable potential but low resource conflicts, and otherwise working with different stakeholders to direct renewable energy facilities to the best places.

We are very supportive of the work that the wind and wildlife FAC has completed thus far, and hope that the guidelines are the first of many steps in the right direction towards renewable energy development that is “smart from the start.”