Community Contributor | Caroline Jezierski, Project Coordinator – Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Wind energy development has increased substantially in the United States in recent years, from 2,742 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity in 1999 to more than 60,000 MW in 2012. You might expect that the windiest states would be the ones making the greatest strides in harnessing this renewable energy resource, but that isn’t always the case.
Nebraska, in the center of the country and the heart of the Great Plains, ranks fourth nationally in terms of wind resources, but development has been noticeably slower than in neighboring states with fewer wind resources, such as Iowa.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that if Nebraska had 1,000 MW of wind energy (more than 500 large-scale wind turbines), the carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction would be 4.1 million tons per year. That 4.1 million tons of CO2 is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 854,167 passenger vehicles, or the amount of carbon sequestered annually by 3,360,656 acres of U.S. forests. Numbers like these make it easy to understand why concerned citizens of the world are advocating for more renewable energy.
But developing wind energy resources is a complicated process no matter where they are. A series of steps must be taken in order for a project to succeed, including identifying suitable wind resource and transmission capacity, contracting with landowners, signing power purchase agreements, securing financial backing, conducting environmental and historical preservation surveys, investigating zoning regulations, and more.
In Nebraska, developing a wind energy project also depends on some unique variables.
Often, the ideal location for wind power facilities is in remote areas, and the energy produced needs to reach population centers that can be hundreds of miles away. Available transmission in these remote areas can be challenging to locate. Since Nebraska is the only state with 100 percent publicly owned power, the transmission lines are mostly constructed, owned, and operated by public entities. This makes for a very efficient grid with little excess capacity on the lines.
Nebraska also hosts hundreds of resident and migratory wildlife species, some of which could be adversely impacted by wind energy development.
Wind and Wildlife
The potential impacts of wind energy development and operation on wildlife and habitats are not fully understood. They vary greatly depending on the location of the facility. Some of the direct impacts include deaths that result when birds and bats collide with wind turbines, and habitat loss from the construction of roads, turbine pads, and other structures. According to a recent study, it’s estimated that more than 570,000 birds and 880,000 bats were killed in one year with 51,630 MW of installed wind energy capacity in the U.S. Indirect impacts can include the displacement of wildlife as a result of habitat fragmentation, or animals being forced to alter migration and/or movement patterns to avoid the turbines.
Wind energy development within the Central Flyway is a particular concern in Nebraska. The Flyway is a major international migratory corridor that passes through the center of the state. In the Rainwater Basin and on the Platte River to the north, millions of migrating waterfowl, cranes, and shorebirds rest and feed in the wetlands, croplands, and river channels during their biannual journeys. The sheer number of birds during the spring migration, including the endangered whooping crane (Grus americana), makes developing wind energy in the area a great concern for conservation groups and fish and wildlife management agencies. Because whooping cranes are protected by the Endangered Species Act, killing them carries the threat of serious fines and/or imprisonment. This worries wind energy developers as well.
To minimize, and ideally avoid, collisions, developers are urged to meet with state and federal fish and wildlife agencies and not place turbines in areas heavily used by birds and bats. Researchers are also finding ways to help reduce the incidence of collisions in areas where bat fatalities occur. These include feathering the turbine blades when they aren’t producing energy and increasing the wind speed at which the turbines start to turn. This minimizes the amount of time the blades are turning at lower wind speeds.
A transition from fossil fuel-based energy sources to renewable energy sources is being championed as a way to help minimize the impacts of climate change and save plant and wildlife species. However, development of these energy sources should proceed carefully. Research to evaluate the impacts of wind energy on wildlife has been conducted throughout the country. It can help inform wind energy development decisions in Nebraska and beyond. Through careful evaluation of the location and operation of each wind energy facility, this renewable resource can be developed while also protecting wildlife and habitats.
The Nebraska Wind Energy and Wildlife Project: http://snr.unl.edu/renewableenergy/wind/index.asp