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Renewable Energy: Lassoing the Wind
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Renewable Energy
Lassoing the Wind

Sagebrush habitat is ideal for wind farms because it’s wide open and breezes abound. So it’s not surprising that 2,700 turbines dot these ecosystems in western states, and the number is expected to keep growing. But this development could also compound the sage-grouse’s problems if roads and power lines cut through the bird’s leks or nesting grounds, or if noisy turbines are put up nearby.

A new Audubon initiative, unveiled in March, promises to lessen these perils by enabling policy makers to zero in on wind-farm sites that pose the least risk. The project overlays maps of critical bird habitat onto satellite images in Google Earth, the popular online geographic browser. This mapping revealed that three-quarters of sage-grouse are concentrated in one-third of the breeding range studied in seven western states. Such findings could help minimize negative impacts on birds. “We’re using science to have a once-contentious discussion in an intelligent manner,” says Kevin Doherty, Audubon Wyoming senior ecologist.

In recent years gas and oil development has marred the landscape, threatening such species as sage-grouse and mule deer (see “Running on Empty,” September-October 2008). A recent report, State of the Birds, compiled with the help of the federal government and wildlife agencies, found that nearly a third of the nation’s 800 bird species are in peril; one cause is degraded and fragmented habitat from poorly planned energy infrastructure—whether for oil, gas, coal, or renewables. But thanks to unprecedented federal support for renewable energy—the stimulus package allocates more than $40 billion for energy improvements, including $6 billion in loan guarantees for wind and solar projects—states and environmental groups are working to make sure wind-energy development accounts for wildlife from the start.

“This is our opportunity to do renewables right,” says Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming. Planning now, agrees American Wind Energy Association spokesperson Christine Real de Azua, will help “bring a maximum amount of renewable energy to market with a minimum footprint, as well as make sure [transmission] lines are optimally sited from an environmental point of view.”

The Western Governors Association (WGA), which represents 19 states, is already working to realize that vision. Last May, in collaboration with the Department of Energy, it launched the Western Renewable Energy Zones initiative to determine the region’s wind-energy potential based on cost, time frame, and transmission needs. The governors also asked state wildlife agencies to map wildlife-sensitive zones. Doing so will help avoid repeating past mistakes; raptors, for instance, were killed by blades on a California wind farm located on their wintering grounds.

While National Audubon is providing the WGA with bird data to incorporate into the wind-energy site-selection process, Rutledge is helping to find ways to facilitate responsible development in biologically important areas. For the Google Earth project, Audubon created maps of Important Bird Areas in Wyoming and Montana, and greater sage-grouse Core Areas there and in Colorado, Utah, and the Dakotas. This information, coupled with state agencies’ maps, will help the governors recommend sites with minimal costs to wildlife. Expense and transmission will be part of the equation, too.

With $40 billion in government backing, a president who puts renewable energy among his top priorities, and siting techniques that incorporate—rather than ignore—wildlife concerns, the winds appear to be blowing in the right direction.

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