Audubon NC & Pantego

Audubon NC Statement on Proposed Wind Development by Pantego Wind Energy LLC

 11/18/11

Below is an overview of Audubon NC’s involvement in the proposed wind development project near Pantego, NC to date.

1) Both the National Audubon Society and Audubon North Carolina have adopted wind energy policy statements that support the development of responsibly sited wind energy projects in the United States and North Carolina.  These policy statements are available at http://nc.audubon.org/issues-action/anc-wind-power-policy

and at http://policy.audubon.org/wind-power-overview-0.

2) Commercial wind has the potential to have impacts on birds through direct mortality (collisions), habitat loss from construction and connection to the electrical grid, habitat exclusion as birds avoid areas with turbines (which can reduce available breeding, foraging, or migratory habitats and pathways), and the cumulative effects of these factors at a landscape scale (wind resources tend to be clustered near certain geographic features like ridge lines or coast lines and so projects also tend to be clustered in these areas).

 

Audubon evaluates proposed commercial wind projects on the following 5 criteria as they relate to birds:

  • Proximity to IBAs (Important Bird Areas)
  • Habitat Loss
  • Habitat Exclusion
  • Rigor of Data Collection
  • Cumulative Impacts

 

3) The Pantego Wind Project lies partially within Audubon’s Pungo-Pocosin Lakes IBA. This area supports thousands of wintering waterfowl including a high percentage of the eastern United States population of Tundra Swans, many other species of waterfowl, raptors and other species. It is located in the southwest corner of this IBA and includes areas normally used for foraging flights of wintering waterfowl, wintering blackbird flocks, and additional species of concern. The project area was identified as critical foraging habitat for wintering waterfowl during the analysis done for the Outlying Landing Field lawsuit.

4)  Audubon NC is directly engaged with the review of this project both with other agencies and groups, as well as with direct meetings with the project developer (Invenergy).

5)   On 11/15/11, Audubon NC provided written comments to the Utilities Commission regarding this project and has shared these comments and concerns widely with our partners in the Outlying Landing Field issue, state and federal agency representatives, national policy staff, and others.

6) Our cover letter to the Utilities Commission made two primary points:

  • We are concerned that any project with the potential to impact this many birds in or near an Important Bird Area needs to show extremely high due diligence in pre-construction study, mitigation and adaptive management plans, and willingness to share data and issues in an open way including post construction operation and monitoring.
  • There are many issues associated with construction of a wind facility in this sensitive area and the original documents filed with the Commission by Pantego Wind do not adequately address many of these concerns.  We are asking the Commission to delay a decision on the Application for Public Convenience and Necessity based on the request of the state agencies tasked with reviewing the project through the state clearinghouse process.

For more information on Audubon NC’s position on this project, please contact Curtis Smalling, Coordinator NC IBA Program, at csmalling@audubon.org or 828.265.0198.

 

November 15, 2011

Chief Clerk

N.C. Utilities Commission

4325 Mail Service Center

Raleigh, NC 27699-4325

Project: PANTEGO WIND ENERGY, LLC (EMP-61)

 To Whom It May Concern,

Please accept the attached comments on the Application for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity to Construct a Wind Facility of up to 80MW & Petition for Registration Statement dated 09/02/2011 (Docket No. EMP-61 Sub 0). We are concerned that any project with the potential to impact this many birds in or near one of our Important Bird Areas needs to show extremely high due diligence in pre-construction study, mitigation and adaptive management plans, and willingness to share data and issues in an open way including post construction operation and monitoring.

As you can see from our comments, there are many issues associated with construction of a wind facility in this sensitive area and the original documents filed with the Commission by Pantego Wind do not adequately address many of these concerns.  We support the request by the various state agencies responding to the clearinghouse request for comment (filed with the commission on 10/21/2011) that data in the application are insufficient for their determination of impact and concur with their request to delay an official ruling by the Utilities Commission until such time as those regulatory agencies are satisfied with the information provided.

Thank you for your time and attention to his matter.

Sincerely,

Curtis Smalling

Important Bird Areas Coordinator and Mountain Program Manager

Audubon North Carolina

 

Pantego Wind Project Comments

 Overview

            Both the National Audubon Society and Audubon North Carolina have adopted wind energy policy statements that support the development of responsibly sited wind energy projects in the United States and North Carolina.  These policy statements are available at www.ncaudubon.org.

Commercial wind has the potential to have impacts on birds through direct mortality (collisions),  habitat loss from construction and connection to the electrical grid, habitat exclusion as birds avoid areas with turbines (which can reduce available breeding, foraging, or migratory habitats and pathways, and the cumulative effects of these factors at a landscape scale (wind resources tend to be clustered near certain geographic features like ridge lines or coast lines and so projects also tend to be clustered in these areas).

The current proposal from Invenergy Wind North America LLC (dba Pantego Wind Energy LLC) is to construct a commercial wind development in Beaufort County, North Carolina encompassing some 11,000 acres in a generally northwest direction from Pantego.  The project would include approximately 49 turbines capable of generating about 80 megawatts of power.  Construction is anticipated to begin in 2012 with production of electricity beginning in late 2012.  Full details from Invenergy’s Application for Public Convenience and Necessity before the Utilities Commission are available on-line and are referenced as Docket EMP-61 Sub 0 (available for review at http://ncuc.commerce.state.nc.us/cgi-bin/fldrdocs.ndm/INPUT?compdesc=PANTEGO%20WIND%20ENERGY%2C%20LLC&numret=001&comptype=EMP&docknumb=61&suffix1=&subNumb=0&suffix2=&parm1=000136331.

 

Project Evaluation – each proposed commercial project is evaluated on the following 5 criteria as they relate to birds

1)    Proximity to IBAs – is the project within an IBA? If not, does it include critical foraging habitat adjacent to an IBA? Does it lie between IBAs that share birds? (An example might be Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet that often have daily movements of wintering waterfowl.)

2)    Habitat Loss – will the project result in a loss of habitat, either for breeding, migration, or wintering?  Is there a plan in place to mitigate those losses?

3)    Habitat Exclusion – will the project exclude suitable habitat from breeding, foraging, or roosting habitat due to habituation, avoidance, or disturbance of priority species? Is there a plan for mitigation of this effect?

4)     Rigor of Data Collection and Analysis – does the project make a thorough use of existing data?  What are the species present and their conservation ranking and relative or absolute abundance (if known)?  What is the plan for pre and post construction study and monitoring?  Does it conform to widely used methods and best practices?  Does the study plan cover the entire annual cycle of birds in the project area?  Is that study based on the USFWS voluntary guidelines for siting study and evaluation or near equivalent?  Is that data open and available for outside review and evaluation, especially post construction, so that future projects can learn from existing projects?

5)    Cumulative Impacts – what are the suspected cumulative impacts from the project on bird populations, habitat availability, connectivity, etc? Are there plans for expansion of the project in later years should it prove economically viable?

 

Proximity to IBAs

The Pantego Wind Project lies partially within Audubon’s Pungo-Pocosin Lakes IBA  (figure 1). This area supports thousands of wintering waterfowl including a high percentage of the eastern United States population of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus), many other species of waterfowl, raptors and other species (Golder and Smalling, 2011). It is located in the southwest corner of this IBA and includes areas normally used for foraging flights of wintering waterfowl, wintering blackbird flocks, and additional species of concern.  The project area was identified as critical foraging habitat for wintering waterfowl during the analysis done for the Outlying Landing Field lawsuit.  Much of the area west of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is heavily used by wintering waterfowl, especially Tundra Swans and Snow Geese (Chen cearulescens).  These uses typically occur as daily foraging flights from roost sites in the area to foraging sites in stubble or winter wheat fields.

In a study of bird usage in agricultural fields on the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula in 2003 (Smalling, unpublished data), bird usage was higher than anticipated, but still differed significantly from a reference site that included managed impoundments and natural wetlands (about one fourth of the total number of birds per point but still very high at over 340 birds per 10 minute count.)  The agricultural lands also hosted a significant number of species (98 species versus 128 on the reference site).  The top ten most common species encountered in that study accounted for almost 90% of all detections and included most species of blackbird [Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) , Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)], and other species like Snow Geese, Trees Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis), and Dunlin (Calidris alpina).

An important factor in evaluating the bird usage of an area is the species using the air space that includes the rotor swept area.  In the study referenced above by Smalling (2003), over half of the species encountered used the air space including the rotor swept area.  Certain taxonomic groups used these heights more frequently than others and this group included waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and gulls.  Large blackbird and European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) flocks also occasionally moved through these heights as well.

The literature reveals an apparent disconnect between high rates of usage by waterfowl and direct mortality however.  In areas with high concentrations of waterfowl, mortality has been quite low compared to the number of birds in the area (Erickson et al. 2002; Kingsley & Whittam 2005).

While there are tens of thousands of individual waterfowl in the area, past studies across the United States and elsewhere have shown little direct mortality impacts to waterfowl as a group (Kingsley and Whittum, 2005; National Academy of Sciences, 2007). This is thought to be due to habituation and detection of turbine fields (Pettersson, 2011), but on a broad scale, could also be attributable to a lack of turbines in high quality waterfowl habitats.   Figure 2 below summarizes mortality by guild of bird species and region of the United States.  As more projects are built in and adjacent to heavily used wetland areas and waterfowl foraging sites, those percentages may change.  A hint of that is already visible in the increased percentage of fatalities in the Midwest (about 6%) compared to other regions (about 2%) as some projects in the upper Midwest are in areas utilized by more waterfowl.  (More problematic than direct mortality is the exclusion of foraging areas from productive use by these wintering species.  This is discussed more fully below in the habitat exclusion summary.)

While wintering waterfowl are a primary concern at the project area, the proximity of the project  area to the large open water of the Pamlico River suggests that landbird migrants may at times occur in high numbers during migratory periods.  Many landbirds avoid crossing large bodies of water and so “pile up” as they wait for conducive winds to assist in crossing, or by the same token, land after crossing to rest and refuel.  While we have little data from this project area, it is important to understand these dynamics, as most mortality at eastern wind energy sites have been from nocturnal migrant passerines (Strickland et al, 2011).  Kunz et al (2007) provide a comprehensive overview of methods for monitoring the nocturnal usage of wind project areas by birds and bats.

Bats too are a concern and much recent research has been focused on bats in the eastern United States (Proceedings of the Wind Energy and Bird/Bat Workshop, 2004; Arnett et al, 2008; Cryan, 2008; Strickland et al, 2011);.  Other research has begun to address possible mitigation and operational adaptation to lessen bat mortality, including reducing so called “cut in speed” or the wind speed required to begin power generation, which has been shown to reduce mortality by up to 60% at one site (Baerwald et al, 2009).  Of possible concern in the current project area is the affinity for locally abundant bat species to forage along forest edges, which are more common in the southern edge of the project area (Morris et al, 2010).  This study was conducted north of the project area near Plymouth, North Carolina and detected some species that have been common species killed at other eastern wind energy installations [Hoary Bat (Lasirius cinereus), Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis), Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus)].  Figure 3 was generated from the Southeast GAP on-line tool (available at http://basic.ncsu.edu/segap/) and is based on predicted distribution using a habitat suitability model for several species of bats including the following:  Brazilian free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis); Eastern pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus); Evening bat  (Nycticeius humeralis); Seminole bat (Lasiurus seminolus); Northern yellow bat (Lasiurus intermedius); Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis); Silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans); Big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus); Rafinesque’s big-eared bat (Corynorhinus rafinesquii).

Habitat Loss

This project, if constructed entirely within existing agricultural lands, will likely have minimal direct habitat loss.  If mitigation is employed to reduce bird usage, some changes to farming practices might be encouraged including which crops to plant immediately adjacent to the turbine array, but agricultural activities are expected to continue in the project area. Habitat impacts should be limited to road bed improvements, turbine pad construction and grid connectivity and maintenance facilities on-site. The plan as presented in the Application for Public Convenience and Necessity shows connectivity to the existing electrical grid is indicated to be on-site and so transmission issues above ground should be minimal.  During discussions with the developer on November 11, 2011, they confirmed that the 49 turbines would directly impact about one acre per turbine with a small amount of that area converted to impervious surface (a concrete pad around each turbine) and that all transmission would be underground until reaching the town of Pantego for overhead access to the substation there.

Habitat Exclusion

Many studies suggest that waterfowl habituate or avoid turbine arrays while moving between foraging areas or during migration (Kingsley and Whittam, 2005; Pettersson, 2011).  If this is the case, the large area covered by this installation could be made unavailable to foraging flocks.  The literature suggests that this may vary according to species however (Powlesland, 2009).  Other groups of birds (gulls, raptors, shorebirds) may be at risk as well but the literature is inconclusive at best about risk of mortality or exclusion and habituation in these other groups (Kingsley and Whittam, 2005; Powlesland, 2009). Raptors in western settings have shown mixed responses, in some cases more inclined to utilize areas with land management schemes favoring small mammal populations (Smallwood and Thelander, 2004) and habituating in others to avoid turbines (Sharp et al, 2010).  There is still much to learn about other groups (gulls, shorebirds, wading birds) that regularly use these agricultural areas (Kingsley and Whittam, 2005; Brennan, et al, 2010; Blackman, 2011), although exclusion of habitats for some grasslands birds is well documented (Horton, 2010; but see Devereaux, 2008).

Much of the bird usage of the agricultural lands in the project area is directly tied to crop history, current planting regime, and soil condition (Rottenborn, 1996; Smalling, 2003). This fact leads to possibilities for mitigation off site or operational adaptive management to influence bird usage within the turbine array. Fields adjacent and within the project area could be adaptively managed to discourage use by wintering waterfowl, once detailed analysis of risk and seasonal movements are understood.  Understanding the dynamics associated with private waterfowl impoundments, their seasonal flooding, and the economic impacts to hunt clubs and guide services should also be considered and incorporated into planning for the operational management of the project.  Many sources provide guidance to existing approaches for a variety of adaptive management and mitigation measures (Kingsley and Whittam, 2005; Environment Canada, 2007; National Academy of Science, 2007; PNWWRM VII, 2011; Strickland et al, 2011; USFWS, 2011).

Rigor of Data Collection and Analysis

The Application for Public Convenience and Necessity does not include details of the methods of data collection being used for pre-construction study of the Pantego project..  In preliminary discussions with the environmental consultant for Invenergy, we do know that they have been conducting diurnal surveys since late winter of this year and plan to continue surveys to complete an annual cycle survey.  Additional details of the study methods and duration were made available to Audubon at a scheduled meeting with the developer and consultant on November 11th, 2011.  They are currently engaged in three basic studies for birds and one for bats.  The first is a diurnal point count method to evaluate species presence or absence and relative abundance.  These 800 m radius counts (approximately 15-20 for the project area) are conducted approximately every other day for 30 minute periods at each point.

Invenergy contractors are also currently conducting aerial surveys for large aggregations of waterfowl and raptor and eagle use of the project area until April of 2012.  They will be looking for the areas most used by large flocks of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese or other large aggregations during flights occurring at least once every two weeks.

In a third study (conducted in 2011), the developers consulting team searched for active Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and other raptor nests.  Six active Bald Eagle nests were found south of the project area.  Current point counts and aerial surveys are trying to determine the level of use of the project by these pairs or other wintering raptors.  Invenergy staff stated that they intend to follow the steps outlined in the USFWS guidance on Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance (USFWS, 2011a).  It appears that they are currently at a stage 2 review and site usage assessment using the USFWS guidance framework.

It is our recommendation that all currently available data be reviewed (including a list of sources provided by Audubon in Appendix 1 and that standard methods are used for pre- and post-construction study (USFWS, 2011b; Strickland et al, 2011).  Publicly available Department of Defense materials and data prepared for the proposed outlying landing field near the project area should also be consulted and included in the analysis (Netti et al, 2007).  This data includes radar, aerial surveys, and wintering waterfowl surveys for an extended period of time over several years.

It is also preferred that data sharing occur and that results of newly completed surveys not be sequestered by the developer.  This is especially true of post construction monitoring data as this is the single best source to evaluate cumulative impacts, efficacy of adaptation and mitigation strategies, and operational impacts.

Cumulative Impacts

This is a difficult measurement to obtain or model given the lack of data, small number of projects, and variables present.  However, basic guidance regarding cumulative impact analysis and theoretical thinking can be found in the National Academy Report on wind energy impacts (Environment Canada, 2007; National Academy of Science, 2007). In general the two factors most often considered in cumulative effects are: 1) any population level impacts of wind energy development in a specific region and the thresholds for creating a population level impact through direct mortality or lower survival rates or productivity and 2) the habitat thresholds for altering the bird communities in the region through exclusion or avoidance.  While these are currently difficult to assess, there are projects underway that attempt to model these impacts (see Strickland et al, 2011).

Recommendations

1)    Continue to utilize the framework of the USFWS service voluntary guidance for siting of wind energy projects including Tier 5 research projects if waterfowl or eagle usage appear problematic, and to commit to adoption of a avian and bat protection plan (USFWS, 2011b).

2)    Continue to utilize the framework of the USFWS Draft Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance document, including completion of an eagle conservation plan for the project (USFWS, 2011a).

3)    All currently available data be reviewed (including a list of sources provided by Audubon in Appendix 1 and that standard methods are used for pre- and post-construction study (USFWS, 2011; Strickland et al, 2011).

4)     It is also preferred that data sharing occur and that results of surveys not be sequestered by the developer.  This is especially true of post construction monitoring data as this is the single best source to evaluate cumulative impacts, efficacy of adaptation and mitigation strategies, and operational impacts.

5)    If abnormal or significant weather events occur during the survey and evaluation period (nor’easters, snowfall, etc), to monitor bird usage during and immediately after such events, even if out of the normal monitoring rotation.

6)    Continue to monitor bat usage of the proposed project area, and commit to adaptive strategies like changing cut-in speeds during migratory periods.

7)    Arrange the final turbine array as far south and west as possible within the project area.

8)    Establish a plan for operational adaptation to conditions on the ground which are likely to vary between and within seasons and years including disruption of generation if necessary, management of fields immediately adjacent to the turbines, and other necessary adaptive measures.

9)    Consider mitigation of habitat excluded from use by waterfowl, shorebirds, and other birds in the project area by supporting permanent protection and or management of additional parcels in proximity to the Pocosin lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

 

 

 

 

 

About don

Don Hendershot's love affair with nature began early, growing up in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. His fascination with the outdoors led to a degree in Wildlife Conservation from Louisiana Tech University.