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The Balancing Act: Renewable Energy and Wildlife

If Chicago-based power plant developer Invenergy has its way, the Clear River Energy Center – a 1,000-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant – will soon begin construction amid the quiet forests of northwest Rhode Island. The site, bordered by thousands of acres of state, local and private conservation lands, is home to hundreds of species of wildlife, including such rarities as the Cerulean Warbler, wood turtle, arrowhead spiketail dragonfly, Pileated Woodpecker and bobcat.

While the company claims the footprint of the facility will only be 67 acres, its impact will be significantly larger as it disrupts an important wildlife corridor the state considers one of the most important in the region. The power plant will also spew massive quantities of greenhouse gases that will affect global climate, regional air quality and human health.

As opponents, including Audubon, work to fight the project and advocate for clean, renewable energy alternatives, it’s easy to ignore that the alternatives also have drawbacks and negative implications for wildlife that must be addressed with proper planning and siting. And as hard as it is to accept, most agree that there will be consequences for wildlife no matter what energy source provides our electricity.

Audubon Executive Director Larry Taft is among the state’s leaders in working to mitigate the impacts on wildlife from renewable energy installations in Rhode Island. A member of the state’s Wind Energy Scientific Working Group, he helped to design guidelines municipal officials can use when considering proposals for wind turbines in their communities.

“We are supportive of the idea of alternative energy, but we also want to be wise about it and locate it where it would have minimal impact on wildlife,” he said. “Yes, wind turbines are a concern for migratory birds and bats, but there are a lot of misconceptions about their impact as well, based largely on a wind farm built decades ago in Altamont Pass in California. Those were turbines of an earlier design with fast-moving blades and sited in a hawk migration corridor. We want to learn from those mistakes and not replicate them here in Rhode Island.”

Taft and the working group modeled their recommendations in part on federal guidelines for siting wind turbines near national wildlife refuges. For land-based turbines in Rhode Island, for example, they recommend avoiding the south-facing coastal beach areas near where endangered Piping Plovers and Roseate Terns breed and congregate.

For turbines sited around upper Narragansett Bay and at inland locations, the group suggested that turbine operators pay close attention during bird and bat migration season and temporarily shut down the turbines when it’s foggy and the birds can’t see the turbines or when large numbers of birds are on the move.

“Songbirds are a concern because they migrate at night,” Taft said, “but weather radar can show when there is a mass movement of migrants. On those nights, the operators should arrange to stop the blades from spinning.”

Taft believes that the lengthy planning and study that went into siting the offshore wind farm off Block Island means those turbines will likely have a negligible impact on wildlife. And recent monitoring suggests that they may actually be a boon to marine life.

According to David Beutel, a former fisheries scientist who now works at the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, the concrete foundations supporting the Deepwater Wind turbines are attracting a wide variety of fish and other creatures.

“Recreational fishing out there has really increased, and their success is very high,” he said, noting that black sea bass, scup and bluefish appear especially plentiful around the structures.

Seaweeds and blue mussels were among the first species to be observed clinging to the turbine foundations, which extend about 90 feet from the seafloor to the water’s surface. Those early colonizers then attracted other species, including baitfish, which then attracted even larger species.

Beutel said that the turbines have not had a similarly positive effect on commercial fishing, largely because the commercial trawlers can’t tow their nets close enough to the turbine foundations to reap the benefit. On the other hand, a monthly trawl survey in the vicinity of the turbines has found that the structures have not had any measurable negative impacts on commercial fisheries either.

Studies of the electromagnetic fields coming from the underwater cables transmitting the electricity to Block Island have also found no negative effects on marine life.

While the high visibility of wind turbines makes them an easy target of wildlife advocates, solar installations face far less scrutiny. Yet they, too, can have significant wildlife implications if not sited appropriately. Solar panels require far more cleared land to generate the same amount of electricity as one wind turbine. And construction of a solar farm in undeveloped areas could result in a sizeable loss of wildlife habitat.

Scott Comings, associate director of the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy, testified before the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board about the wildlife impact of cutting down forests to build the Clear River Energy Center. He said there are both wildlife reasons and climate change reasons to avoid siting large solar installations in forests or other pristine habitat.

“Forest fragmentation is a huge issue for wildlife,” he said. “A large forest with corridors for wildlife equals a healthier forest with healthier animals and plants. The more you reduce the size and connectivity of the forest, the less certain plants and animals can move as they need to now and in the future.”

He also sees folly in cutting down forests – thereby eliminating their ability to sequester carbon – to build a solar installation as a way of reducing the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel-burning power plants.

“The climate benefit of cutting down 50 acres of trees to put up solar panels is far less than putting 50 acres of solar panels on a parking lot or industrial site,” Comings said.

Despite the challenges of siting renewable energy facilities in such a way as to limit their impact on wildlife, Audubon is committed to helping the state do just that.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about some of the implications,” concluded Taft. “But we have to find a place for alternative energy in Rhode Island. We need to reduce carbon emissions if we are going to be serious about addressing climate change.”

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Todd McLeish is a life-long birder, freelance science writer and author of several books about wildlife, including Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World.