Feds move to speed approval for Great Plains wind projects

 Feds move to speed approval for Great Plains wind projects

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Federal officials are moving to speed up their review of wind power projects across the Upper Great Plains in anticipation that the industry will continue growing, a situation that's alarmed wildlife advocates who say many bird and bat species are being put at risk as wind turbines proliferate.

The proposal would cover future wind farms in Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Companies to date have installed roughly 8,000 turbines generating more than 12,000 megawatts of wind energy in the six states. That's almost one-fifth of the wind power in the U.S. and represents enough energy to power the equivalent of almost 3.3 million homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

With 8,600 to 30,000 additional turbines anticipated by 2030, officials hope to reduce the duration of environmental reviews that are needed for permitting from two years to one, said Jennifer Neville, a spokeswoman for the Western Area Power Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy.

To speed the process, wind farm developers would receive site-specific information about potential impacts on wildlife, including bald and golden eagles and endangered whooping cranes. That would ensure developers construct their turbines and transmission lines away from wetlands and rivers where whooping cranes and other birds gather, or shut down turbines when the birds are seen nearby, according to the proposal.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collaborated with the Western Area Power Administration on a 1,160-page environmental study that details steps companies may need to take to avoid killing birds.

By working off that document, developers would know up-front what measures they might have to take to protect wildlife "so they don't have to build them from scratch every time," Neville said.

A final decision will come after a 30-day review process that begins once the study is published in the Federal Register.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ryan Moehring said the proposal would help identify appropriate sites for wind turbines, not reduce government oversight.

Better planning for wind energy has been embraced by wildlife groups, including the American Bird Conservancy, which has said that current lax oversight allows turbines to be constructed in areas frequented by birds.

Michael Hutchins, the head of the conservancy's Bird-Smart wind energy program, cited a study that appeared in the Wildlife Society Bulletin estimating that 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats were killed by wind turbines in 2012. While it's hard to gauge the accuracy of such findings, Hutchins said it's clear that more turbines erected in bird migration corridors will result in more birds being killed.

The International Crane Foundation estimates that roughly 600 whooping cranes survive.

"Those Midwestern states are right smack in the middle of the whooping crane migratory corridor," Hutchins said. "The loss of even a few (birds) to wind turbines or power lines and towers would have a population-level impact."

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