Bird deaths complicate renewable energy push

Bird deaths complicate renewable energy push


NaturEnerOn Dec. 19, San Diego Gas and Electric filed suit against NaturEner, which operates wind farms in Montana. The suit alleged NaturEner did not meet its contractual requirements to preserve eagles, raptors, bats and other protected bird species for electricity sent to California.

A renewable energy company in Madrid, Spain owns San Francisco-based NaturEner. The lawsuit is the first to allege harm to the environment from the purchase of air pollution credits mandated by California’s cap-and-trade program.

From 2008 to 2012, SDG&E finalized a $285 million contract with NaturEner to buy Tradable Renewable Energy Credits from NaturEner’s Montana wind farm, instead of more costly pollution permits through California’s cap-and-trade system. Cap and trade is a system of capping air pollution by having to buy pollution permits in an auction rather than paying a pollution tax.

SDG&E sought to buy cheaper pollution credits to keep its electric rates low to customers. Buying pollution credits from NaturEner’s Rim Rock wind farm in Montana would contribute about 3.5 percentage points of the 33 percent renewable mandate by 2020 under Senate Bill 722, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in 2011.

As reported in the Montana Great Fall Tribune, SDG&E Spokesperson Jennifer Ramp said, “Unfortunately, the project’s owner, NaturEner, did not meet contractual requirements, so SDG&E has decided not to make the investment in Rim Rock (wind farm) or to continue purchasing its renewable energy credits.”

Countersuit and eagle detecting radar

NatureEner immediately filed a countersuit on Dec. 20 in a Montana District Court. The suit alleged that SDG&E’s action is motivated by “buyer’s remorse” due to the falling price of renewable power.  NaturEner said it had implemented state-of-the-art wildlife protection measures in its Montana Rim Rock wind farm project.  The measures include radar detection systems for eagles; and the positioning of trained avian biologists that can pause wind turbine blades as part of NaturEner’s 24-hour Operations Center.  NaturEner claims no eagle has ever been harmed at its project.

NaturEner spokesperson Patrick Ferguson said, “Conditions in the contract require us to develop a documented bird and bat conservation strategy in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We’ve done that. We have met the contract conditions.”

NaturEner also filed an emergency injunction to prevent SDG&E from terminating contracts by January before the dueling lawsuits can be heard in court.

Environment versus renewables

Wildlife impact issues have frustrated SDG&E’s efforts to meet its cap-and-trade mandated 20 percent reduction in air pollution.  SDG&E also depends on its 117-mile Sunrise Powerlink transmission line linking it to renewable energy projects in Imperial County.

Environmentalists had opposed the Sunrise Powerlink project on the basis of harm to golden eagles, bighorn sheep and the checkerspot butterfly. The Sunrise Powerlink was forced to alter its original route by California Public Utility Commission Administrative Law Judge Jean Vieth due to wildlife impacts.

On Nov. 20, U.S. Superior Court Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel dismissed a lawsuit brought by three environmental groups against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alleging adverse impacts of the Ocotillo Express Wind Farm Project in Imperial County on bighorn sheep.

More equal animals

The legal disputes between the renewable energy industry and environmentalists is bound to heat up in California since the order by the California Water Resources Control Board to shut down 19 coastal power plants mainly due to harmful impacts on millions of fish larvae.

In Morro Bay, Dynergy has mothballed its gas-fired power plant rather than retrofit its plant with an expensive air-cooling system.  The California Valley Solar Ranch located in inland San Luis Obispo County is replacing the Morro Bay Power Plant.

However, solar farms, especially those using concentrated solar tower technology, have also been implicated in bird deaths.  There were 20 bird deaths reported in Sept. 2013 attributed to Bright Source Energy’s 459-foot solar tower at its Ivanpah Solar Project in the Mojave Desert at Primm, Nev.

And AP reported on Nov. 23, “A study in September by federal biologists found that wind turbines had killed at least 67 bald and golden eagles since 2008. Wyoming had the most eagle deaths. That did not include deaths at Altamont Pass, an area in northern California where wind farms kill an estimated 60 eagles a year.”

Are fish larvae more important than birds?

California set a legal precedent when it admitted retroactive environmental lawsuits in the case of dust storm impacts on Owens Lake brought by the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for taking water from Owens Lake.

This raises a legal question of whether renewable energy projects that have already received environmental clearances could be re-opened and challenged because of the bird deaths, or for other reasons. That’s what the courts also will have to sort out.

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