Wind energy has a lot of benefits for the environment compared with power from fossil fuels. However, wind energy and specifically wind farms can have serious detrimental impacts on the environment if the proper research, planning and placement of the farm are not taken into consideration.
Rob Manes, who currently works at The Nature Conservancy, began working in wildlife conservation 10 years ago at the Wildlife Management Institute. As he was working there, he began hearing about the placement of large commercial wind farms on the landscape and began to wonder if there were negative impacts to wildlife caused by these wind farms. Since this time, Manes has been involved in the placement of several wind farms and has helped in the development of guidelines for wind farms in several states and at the national level.
Despite the many concerns about the impacts these wind farms can have on wildlife, there are no current regulations that developers must follow before building their sites.
“The unfortunate situation with wind energy development is there are — in Kansas and in most of the country — no regulations that affect the sighting of a wind farm,” Manes says. “So if a developer chooses to ignore any ecological concerns and just go out there and haphazardly develop a wind farm there is really nothing to stop a developer from doing that except for the will of private land owners.”
While some state departments have voluntary guidelines for these farms, there are no requirements stating that wind companies must meet with organizations such as The Nature Conservancy to get advising on where to place these farms, Manes says. Some developers have been concerned about their impact and have approached The Nature Conservancy asking for their advice on where to place a wind farm, but unfortunately others have not.
When a wind farm is not properly placed, it affects wildlife in various ways. Many prairie chickens are being displaced from where they nest and brood — this limits their population. Researchers fear this could develop into a large problem and worry these animals are only a step away from being on the endangered list. Other animals negatively impacted include various species of grassland birds, because they won’t nest and raise their young around tall structures. Bat populations have also been negatively impacted both by colliding with turbines and by barotrauma — a phenomenon that causes a bat's lungs to burst because of the low pressure behind spinning turbines.
Additional habitat concerns have developed because of the roads built to help maintain these large wind farms. The roads destroy the natural vegetation and create pathways for invasive species to disrupt natural ecosystems. One plant they are especially worried about is milkweed (which is currently on the endangered list).
However, Manes says that most companies that are involved in wind energy are concerned about their green image and eventually the industry will raise the bar because of this. New scientific research will also help in understanding and lessen wind farms’ environmental impacts.
When researching and determining if an area is a good site for a wind farm, this organization looks at whether there is an intact native habitat present, and if there is a large expanse of native prairie that would be fragmented by the construction of a wind farm, Manes says. For example, the Meridian Way wind farm was placed in an area that has healthy grassland and good populations of prairie chickens, but is relatively fragmented. There were some environmental impacts resulting from this wind farm, but the developer acknowledged these impacts and has been working to rectify them. Horizon Wind Energy, cooperating with Westar Energy, has been working with the Ranchland Trust of Kansas to restore and protect wildlife and grassland from future development fragmentation in other areas — primarily the Smoky Hills, Manes says.
As well as working with developers to determine good sites for wind farms, The Nature Conservancy has provided funding for research on the impact of wind farms on the greater prairie chickens. Another effort this organization has initiated has been developing a map, the Kansas Natural Resource Planner Map, to help developers make smart decisions on where to build their farms.
“Kansas has one of a handful of and probably the most sophisticated statewide database that shows and can guide wind developers to areas where wind farms won’t pose an ecological problem,” Manes says.
Other states are beginning to develop maps similar to this and there is a national level initiative to develop a database like this one. This initiative is funded by the and the research and development is being conducted by The Nature Conservancy.
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