September 17, 2007
One last shot at delaying the Kenedy wind farms

The Express News has a followup to the earlier story about the Coastal Habitat Alliance's efforts to halt the construction of power transmission lines that will be used for wind turbines at the Kenedy Ranch.

The Coastal Habitat Alliance, a combination of the King Ranch and local and national environmental organizations, will ask the Public Utility Commission of Texas to step into the situation Monday. The group wants the PUC to overturn an administrative law judge's ruling and allow a hearing over a transmission line that would serve the two farms.

Because state regulations don't require site permits for power plants, there will be no hearing on the wind farms themselves. That could change if the development impacts nearby wetlands under the jurisdiction of the federal government, but both developers are seeking to avoid the wetlands.

As I said before, it seems ludicrous to me that tranmission lines would have any impact on migratory birds. I can't see this as anything but an attempt to throw sand in the gears of the wind farm construction.

The developers of one of the farms, the Australian-based Babcock & Brown Ltd., claims it has conducted more environmental study on this site than almost any other in the world.

The company's chief development officer, John Calaway, said those studies show the wind farm has little potential to harm birds. Calaway said the company is even pioneering a radar-based system for the project that can shut down the turbines within a minute in the event of a massive bird run-in.

But Calaway said it's unlikely at this point that he would share the studies with any of the groups in opposition.

"I don't think that, because of the way they've been referring to us, that we will be jumping up and down to accommodate then," he said. "And quite frankly we don't have to."

Calaway's company wants to build 157 turbines. The other company, PPM Energy, which is owned by the Spanish company Iberdrola, has proposed 84 turbines. The two wind farms combined would produce about enough energy to power the city of Corpus Christi, Calaway said.

"And that's with zero emissions and using zero water," he said.

Having said all that I've said about wanting to see the Kenedy Ranch wind farms go forward, I do think Babcock & Brown should release its data for public scrutiny. I agree that whatever they say is unlikely to make the opposition go away, but if it is as good as they say, it will greatly reduce the likelihood that said opposition will be able to rally public support for their argument. More information is always better than less in cases like this.

Problems with birds and wind turbines have a history that goes far beyond Texas. Generally, most agree, the harm caused by such operations is minimal. But a few horrendous examples worldwide have caused concern.

Closest to home, a massive conglomeration of wind farms in California's Altamont Pass kills more than 1,000 raptors a year. These include many iconic species such as golden eagles and red-tailed hawks.

As I understand it, Altamont Pass is not representative of modern wind farms, mostly because they're not located in narrow mountain passes any more. I understand why it always gets brought up in these debates, but if it's the main bad example, then that suggests to me this issue is not endemic to wind farms, but is mostly one of location. There ought to be better comparisons available for the Kenedy project. What do those experiences tell us?

I figure the PUC will side with the Kenedy folks. That strikes me as the right result, but one that will be more about a weak process of oversight than anything else. I'd feel more comfortable in this if I had more faith in the PUC. But I suppose when the stopped clock is right in my favor, I shouldn't complain too much.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 17, 2007 to The great state of Texas