The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) on March 23 released guidelines aimed at helping wind energy project developers avoid or minimize impacts of land-based wind projects on wildlife.
The guidelines included an examination of those projects’ transmission aspects.
DOI said that using a tiered approach, the guidelines provide a scientific process for developers, federal and state agencies, and tribes to identify sites with low risk to wildlife. The voluntary guidelines are designed to be used for all utility-scale, community-scale, and distributed land-based wind energy projects on private and public lands, DOI added.
According to the guidelines, they are aimed at addressing all elements of a wind energy facility, including the above- and below-ground electrical lines that connect a project to the transmission system.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recommended that the project evaluation include consideration of the wildlife- and habitat-related impacts of these electrical lines, and that the developer include measures to reduce impacts of these lines.
The guidelines are not aimed at addressing power transmission beyond the point of interconnection to the transmission system.
According to the guidelines, transmission lines, site clearing, access roads and turbine tower arrays remove habitat and displace some wildlife species and may fragment continuous habitat areas into smaller, isolated tracts.
Habitat fragmentation is the separation of a block of habitat for a species into segments, such that the genetic or demographic viability of the populations surviving in the remaining habitat segments is reduced.
The guidelines also noted that under the general framework for evaluating habitat fragmentation at a project site, a developer should, among other things, use recent aerial and remote imagery to determine distinct habitat patches, or boundaries, within the study area, and the extent of habitat fragmenting features, such as highways.
The guidelines also discussed bird distribution, abundance, behavior and site use. For instance, searches for raptor nests or raptor breeding territories on projects with potential for impacts to raptors should be done in suitable habitat during the breeding season.
While there is no consensus on the recommended buffer zones around nest sites to avoid disturbance of most species, a nest search within at least one mile of the wind turbines and transmission lines, and other infrastructure should be done, the guidelines added.
Furthermore, sage grouse and prairie grouse deserve special attention as they are species for which some known impacts of man-made features, such as transmission lines, have been documented.
On migratory birds and eagles, the guidelines noted that some industries, such as the electric utilities, have developed operational and deterrent measures that when properly used, can avoid or minimize “take” of migratory birds. FWS encouraged the wind industry to use such measures in siting, placing and operating all power lines, including their distribution and grid-connecting transmission lines.
FWS has also recommended that developers prepare written records of their actions to avoid, minimize and compensate for potential adverse impacts, which FWS has referred to in the past as avian and bat protection plans (ABPPs).
However, the guidelines added, ABPPs have more recently been used for transmission projects and less for other types of development, and as such, FWS is introducing a distinct concept for wind energy projects, called the bird and bat conservation strategies (BBCS).
A developer may prepare a BBCS in stages, over time, as analysis and studies are undertaken, addressing, for instance, the post-construction monitoring efforts for mortality and habitat effects.
“We’re committed to working with developers to ensure that wind energy projects are built in the right places and operated in the right way,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in the March 23 statement. “These voluntary guidelines have been developed through an intensive public process with significant help from the wind energy industry, state agencies, and wildlife conservation groups and are designed to achieve the best outcome for wildlife and wind energy development.”
American Wind Energy Association CEO Denise Bode said in the statement that the “guidelines set the highest standard, either voluntary or mandatory, of wildlife protection for any industry.”
The voluntary guidelines replace voluntary interim guidelines issued by FWS in 2003, DOI said, adding that they are the result of a five-year process that included multiple opportunities for public review and comment.