Birds flying into wind turbines isn't the only issue dividing greens lately.
By Vince Bielski, RealClearInvestigations
September 14, 2020
Icebreaker Wind, designed as the first offshore renewable power project in the Great Lakes, is backed by the usual supporting cast: energy development advocates and environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council.
What’s surprising is that much of the opposition is coming from other environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, that seek to protect birds from lethal collisions with turbines. They notched a victory in May when Ohio regulators ordered that the wind farm would have to shut down at night, a restriction that effectively kills the project unless an appeal is successful, according to the developer.
The seven-year clash over Icebreaker exemplifies the growing tension among environmentalists as they weigh the costs of clean energy. The rapid rollout of renewable power is shattering old alliances, pitting green groups against energy projects meant to address climate change – a top priority of other environmental organizations. In a strange new twist, bird groups opposed to Icebreaker found themselves fighting side-by-side with local residents backed by coal mining giant Murray Energy Corp., an opponent of renewable energy mandates in Ohio.
Armed with litigators and wildlife experts, conservation groups have become formidable foes for the renewable energy industry that already faces headwinds from rural communities and the coronavirus recession that has slashed demand for power. In Maryland, a large coalition of environmentalists defeated a solar farm to protect a forest. In the California desert, they are jeopardizing several new projects to save an iconic tree.
The battle is complicated by another fact: while the benefits of any single renewable energy project are negligible in affecting the global climate, the environmental costs, even if they are also small, are palpable. The Audubon Society lobbied for the nightime ban on Icebreaker’s operation to save an unknown but likely small number of birds. Yet the group rang the alarm bell in its 2014 climate change report, declaring that more than half of 588 North American species are endangered or threatened due to shifts in their geographic ranges.
As green vs. green conflicts crop up across the country, leaders of these groups that are accustomed to collaborating are reluctant to talk about the tensions that now divide them. The Audubon Society, which isn’t normally press shy, turned down several requests to discuss its position of “conditional support” for Icebreaker. Leaders of Black Swamp and the Ohio Environmental Council did privately converse about their differences over the wind farm but details of those talks weren’t forthcoming.
“It’s a difficult trade-off for environmentalists,” says Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental law at Columbia who represents communities that want renewable energy projects. “Wind turbines and certain kinds of solar installations can kill some wildlife. But that’s a small part of the big picture. We need a massive increase in renewable energy to address the climate problem so those wishing to protect wildlife should be more flexible.”
Environmentalists say that framing the issue as a tradeoff – birds or trees for clean energy – is wrong. They say the U.S. can have it all by locating wind and solar farms on rooftops, parking lots and degraded lands that have no other use.
“Let’s think about how we build out wind energy wisely rather than move ahead at all costs,” says Mark Shieldcastle, a wildlife scientist at Black Swamp Bird Observatory who gave expert commentary on Icebreaker’s potential danger to birds.
But that optimism isn’t shared by states aiming to cut carbon emissions to net zero in two decades. Although developers in New York and California are trying to site projects on less desirable property, there isn’t enough of it in the vicinity of transmission lines for the planned exponential growth in renewable energy projects. That means today’s mega wind and solar farms – a typical project covers several square miles – will inevitably disturb valuable ecosystems and wildlife and require trade-offs that some environmentalists are unwilling to accept.
“To decarbonize the grid, rooftops, brownfields and landfills are not enough,” says Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-scale Solar Association in California. “We also need to build in deserts, co-locate on farmland and get creative and make tough choices about where projects can go.”
In Maryland, environmentalists showed little interest in compromising on Georgetown University’s plan to put a solar farm in a forest. In a state with very little farmland available for renewable energy, Georgetown’s developer proposed clearing about 249 acres of mostly wooded property in Charles County for the project, while taking ambitious steps to minimize impacts to streams and wetlands.
Environmentalists, however, were outraged at the idea of cutting down trees for a solar farm. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a Sierra Club chapter, Audubon in Maryland and other groups campaigned against it. They met with university officials and testified before the Maryland environmental department, which heard from more than 80 people. The university’s estimate that the solar farm would reduce greenhouse gases far more than the existing forest absorbs didn’t seem to matter.
“There were too many ecological issues and consultation concerns with the developer to support this project,” says Rosa Hance, chair of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. “Generally, the Sierra Club does not oppose solar projects.”
Maryland denied the permit last year, saying the developer failed to adequately address alternative sites and water quality issues. But Georgetown isn’t giving up. A spokeswoman says the university is committed to the robust deployment of renewable energy as part of its goal to cut fossil-fuel consumption.
In California, environmentalists are making parts of the desert – one of the world’s best locations for solar energy – off limits to developers. First they protected the threatened Desert Tortoise. Now it’s the Western Joshua tree.
The short, spike-leafed tree that populates the Mojave Desert is headed for extinction in coming decades due to climate change, fires and development, including solar farms, says Brendan Cummings, an attorney and conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity. The center petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to make the tree, which is actually a yucca plant, a candidate for the endangered species list. On Aug. 20, the commissioners suggested that they would soon approve the petition – a move that would safeguard the Joshua tree while regulators study whether to designate it.
“When planning solar projects, if there are Joshua trees there, it’s probably not a good site,” Cummings says. “The Joshua tree range represents a small fraction of the California desert, so there’s land that can be built on without touching a tree.”
The solar industry adamantly opposes the petition. A half dozen solar farms totaling 1,400 megawatts – enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes -- that have permits or are in the process of getting them would be affected if the commission protects the tree. Some are slated to begin construction this year. The Solar Energy Industries Association and Large-scale Solar Association warned the commission in June that these projects would face costly delays and uncertainty, undermining California’s push to produce 100% of its power using clean sources by 2045.
“SEIA and LSA cannot emphasize strongly enough the negative impact that advancing the Joshua tree to candidacy will have on solar development in California,” the groups wrote.
In Ohio, bird conservation groups are threatening the future of wind power in the Great Lakes. The powerful winds that blow across the lakes make them ideal locations for projects like Icebreaker. If successful, the demonstration wind farm could turn Lake Erie into a renewable power mecca with more than 1,000 turbines and spur a buildout across the Great Lakes.
But millions of migratory bats and birds such as thrushes and warblers ride those winds, mostly at night. The Icebreaker controversy is over how many animals it will kill amid sharp declines in most North American bird species, primarily from the loss of habitat because of development and climate change.
Icebreaker’s small size and location reduces the danger for wildlife. Most migratory birds wouldn’t encounter its six turbines situated 8 to 10 miles offshore because they fly near land to avoid the long passage over the lake.
Still, questions remain about the volume of birds that fly over the lake in the project area at night, when they can’t see the turbines, and if they descend low enough to collide with the long spinning blades that have a diameter of 413 feet.
Icebreaker shows the difficulty renewable energy developers face in assessing the impact of wind and solar farms on wildlife, particularly birds, even when using state of the art scientific methods. After a range of studies were conducted, which mostly suggest that Icebreaker wouldn’t pose a big threat to birds, serious debates continue over the quality of the research.
The Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCo) tried and failed to answer the questions about avian exposure to its Icebreaker project because of the technical challenges of using marine radar to spot little birds flying at night, particularly during bad weather.
While agreeing to conduct a better radar study, LEEDCo President Dave Karpinski downplays its importance, saying just because birds fly in the area of a wind farm doesn’t mean they will be killed by turbines.
Karpinski says a better indication of Icebreaker’s risk is the actual number of birds killed at 42 wind farms operating in the Great Lakes region. A LEEDCo consultant found a small number of fatalities on average at the projects, and extrapolated that a maximum of 140 birds a year would be killed by Icebreaker.
“That backs up our position that Icebreaker is a low risk to birds,” Karpinski says.
But bird groups called this research flawed because of superficial methods used to search for the dead birds. “My review of several of those reports shows a series of manipulations that are designed to reduce estimated mortality,” says Black Swamp’s Shieldcastle, a former avian research specialist at the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “The truth is much greater, maybe magnitudes greater. The science has to be done with the highest standards possible because we are making decisions for the future of wind power in Lake Erie.”
The staff of the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB), which considers energy projects for approval, was initially concerned about Icebreaker’s threat to birds and proposed in 2018 that its turbines would have to be stopped at night for most of the year. A few months later Karpinski testified that such a shutdown would spell the end of Icebreaker before negotiating a settlement agreement with the staff in 2019 to remove the restrictions.
In exchange, Karpinski agreed to more safeguards, including proving to regulators that his group has developed technology to detect bird collisions offshore before it can build Icebreaker. Once the turbines are operating, if there are 21 or more detected bird strikes in a 24-hour period, LEEDCo will have to take steps to reduce the fatalities.
Local residents, whose legal fees were paid by Murray Energy, joined bird groups in objecting to the agreement. Residents of the village of Bratenahl on Lake Erie said testimony showed there are no proven technologies to determine bird fatalities for offshore projects and that curbing the turbines at night would help reduce them. Attorney John Stock told RealClearInvestigations that Murray, which declared bankruptcy last year, “is not funding the Bratenahl residents’ opposition at this point.”
For the past three decades, the OPSB has consistently voted to uphold settlement agreements negotiated by its staff, according to a person familiar with the board process. But last year that long precedent changed with the appointment of Sam Randazzo as OPSB chairman by Republican Governor Mike DeWine. Randazzo, who had been a longtime advocate of the fossil fuel industry and critic of renewable energy, unexpectedly delayed board votes last year for months on two solar projects that involved settlement agreements.
In May, the board undermined Icebreaker. It rejected its staff finding that the project poses a minimal risk to birds and imposed the curb on nighttime operations for eight months a year until further studies show it’s not a big threat. The board noted that the Audubon Society supported its position.
"The board under Randazzo’s leadership has a history of treating renewable energy projects differently than other energy resources,” says Miranda Leppla, vice president of energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC). “The imposition of the poison pill in its approval of the Icebreaker contradicts clear and substantial evidence on the record.” Randazzo declined a request for an interview.
The green vs. green struggle in Ohio isn’t over. The OEC and Sierra Club are appealing the board’s order for ignoring evidence that Icebreaker is a low risk project. The board could rule on the appeal as early as this month, and if it’s rejected, Icebreaker supporters can turn to the Supreme Court of Ohio.