‘Wind farm’ next to Everglades gets initial go-ahead – Sun

March 2, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

A “wind farm” proposed on the edge of the Everglades passed a key hurdle Thursday, despite concerns about tall, spinning blades killing endangered birds.

The Palm Beach County Zoning Commission voted in favor of erecting more than 100 wind-catching turbines on western sugar cane fields to produce electricity.

The County Commission on March 22 gets the final say on development approvals needed to build what would be Florida’s first commercial wind farm.

The 500-foot-tall turbines and their fast-spinning blades offer a pollution-free alternative energy source. But they also threaten to kill birds that flock to the nearby Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge — the northern reach of the Everglades.

The risk to endangered wood storks and Everglades snail kites — as well as bald eagles and flocks of other birds flying over western Palm Beach County — prompted the Sierra Club, Audubon of Florida and other environmental advocates that normally support alternative energy to oppose the wind farm.

“It has to be in the right place,” said Jane Graham of Audubon. Building the wind farm without more study of the effect on Everglades birds “equates to gambling with the future of this world-class treasure,” she said.

But zoning commissioners decided that the chance to encourage a new alternative-energy source outweighed environmental concerns about the Sugarland Wind proposal.

“We need more wind [energy] throughout our country and less fossil fuels,” Zoning Commission Chairwoman Sherry Hyman said Thursday.

The Missouri-based Wind Capital Group, developers of the proposed alternative-energy facility, has agreed to explore using radar and other ways to try to minimize bird deaths.

“This is the wave of the future,” project consultant George Gentile said. “It’s good for the environment, the economy and our future.”

Sugarland Wind would include at least 114 wind turbines spread across 13,000 acres of farmland producing 200 mega watts of electricity.

That’s enough to power 60,000 South Florida homes. That could offset the production of 320,000 tons of polluting carbon emissions a year that comes from producing the same amount of electricity at fossil-fuel-driven power plants.

Business groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, support the wind farm for jobs and new industry it could bring.

Project backers say they would be making a $350 million construction investment. It would create up to 300 temporary construction jobs and about 20 permanent jobs in struggling Glades communities, where unemployment hovers between 20 percent and 40 percent.

Pahokee Mayor J.P. Sasser called the potential mix of agriculture and new industry a good match that could help Glades communities “survive.”

“This project right here is just exactly what we need,” Sasser said.

Providing room for wind turbines helps farmers generate a new source of income while still farming most of their land, according to agricultural advocates who support the wind farm.

“This is one of the key ways that agriculture can remain sustainable,” said Rick Roth, president of Roth Farms in Belle Glade.

The environmental group Clean Water Action backs the wind farm, despite the bird concerns.

“Investment in truly clean energy means more protection … for our environment,” said Cara Capp, of Clean Water Action.

Even if the County Commission signs off on the wind farm proposal, Sugarland Wind still would need federal and state environmental permits to move forward.

Wind-farm developers project about three to four birds per tower per year to die, which is in line with the national average. That would be nearly 500 birds killed a year by Sugarland’s towers, an estimate that environmental groups say is too low for the area between bird havens like Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

Environmental opponents have called for at least three years of study to gauge the potential threat that the turbines pose to birds.

They say that Sugarland’s study of bird populations during the past year may have been skewed by last year’s drought.

Even studies and projections won’t tell the whole story of the potential threat, said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club.

“If a bird collides with that blade, there’s not going to be a bird left to analyze,” Martin said.

abreid@tribune.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews

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