Sunday, February 25, 2024

Offshore wind developers, conservation groups collaborate to protect birds

Planning for clean energy off Brunswick County to include continued environmental studies

While offshore wind is necessary to reducing the risks of climate change, the installation of turbines can cause harm to bird species if not properly placed. (Courtesy photo)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Two offshore wind leases were awarded earlier this month off the coast of Brunswick County. Statewide conservation groups are concerned yet hopeful about future impacts, especially when it comes to avian species.

“North Carolina has the greatest offshore wind potential of any state on the Atlantic Coast and also has the highest level of biodiversity,” said Greg Andeck, North Carolina Audubon’s director of government relations. “It’s essentially ground zero for the country on how to balance offshore wind development with protecting wildlife at the same time.”

Development of offshore wind requires weighing the need to acquire more clean energy essential for wildlife survival while implementing strategies that reduce harm to certain species.

“Our research showed if global temperatures are allowed to rise at the current rates they’ve been rising, without slowing down or decreasing, two-thirds of bird species are vulnerable to extinction by the end of the century,” Andeck explained. “If immediate action is taken to slow the rate, the vast majority can be protected.”

One way that can be done is through the use of renewable energy, including offshore wind. Reducing emissions — greenhouse gasses, nitrogen oxides, mercury, sulfur dioxide and acid rain — released from other sources of energy, such as oil, gas and coal, is vital to keeping global warming rates from rising more than 1.5 degree Celsius.

The May 11 offshore wind lease announcement for Brunswick County was a major milestone in Gov. Roy Cooper’s strategy to reach 2.8 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2023 and 8 gigawatts by 2040. The Brunswick County leases are estimated to generate 1.3 gigawatts of offshore wind, enough to power 500,000 homes, when they come online in eight years. 

READ MORE: Two offshore wind leases awarded off Brunswick County coast

With 8,000 components making up a wind turbine, there is opportunity for the region to recruit manufacturers in the supply chain, as well as strengthen job creation. According to the Southeastern Wind Coalition, offshore wind is projected to create more than $109 billion in economic output, with roughly $90 billion focused on the manufacturing supply chain.

Some Brunswick County communities opposed the installation of wind turbines off the coast of its tourist-centric towns. Officials from Bald Head Island, Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach expressed it would be an “eyesore.” The turbines should be installed more than 20 miles away, likely eliminating that concern. Plans will not be finalized for a few years.

Due to the distance offshore, Andeck explained the turbines should not threaten the bald eagle population that inhabits Bald Head Island. Eagles — the namesake of the 5 miles of land — are seasonal and can be seen in early fall to late spring. They typically nest on Bluff Island, along the eastern coastline of the island. The offshore wind leases are located more southwest.

“Bald eagles have not been a significant source of concern for us with the final lease location,” he said.

Eagles, along with other species, tend to “hug closely to the shorelines,” Andeck added.  “They tend not to fly out that far. There are other birds we will be paying more attention to.”

The Audubon is keeping a close eye on the Northern Gannett, black-capped petrel, several species of gulls, warblers and red knots. They tend to fly farther offshore, spanning the open ocean, causing potential collisions with turbines.

“Many are affected by climate change and at risk of significant decrease in populations over time,” Andeck said.

Bird habitat, migration patterns and food sources are still being studied as it relates to future offshore wind installation.

“It would be a real double whammy if, not only were the populations impacted by climate change, but if wind projects were not properly designed and operated, adding additional impacts,” Andeck added.

One way to help avoid potential collision is through radar technology, Andeck explained. The radar-sensing equipment picks up the movement of individual birds or clusters. This sends a radio signal or wireless signal to a routing center that would temporarily shut down the spinning blades.

According to Duke Energy, the company was the first to install IdentiFlight in 2018, blending artificial intelligence with optical camera technology to prevent birds from flying into turbines.

An estimated 140,000 to 500,000 birds are killed every year in collisions with turbines’ spinning rotor blades, according to N.C. Audubon research. Turbine blades can range in length from 200 to 260 feet, equaling a rotor swept area of 1.1 to 3.3 acres. 

At least 250 species have experienced wind power-related fatalities in the last few decades. At this time, it doesn’t appear to be causing the rapid decline of any populations. 

While there are still some major data gaps in research, due to offshore wind off the Atlantic Coast being fairly new, Andeck said there are certain steps to follow to protect wildlife.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) spent years determining the best area for offshore wind. Wilmington East Wind Energy Area, what the Brunswick County leases are referred to, was reduced multiple times from its original 270,000 acres based on feedback regarding military actions, visual impacts and wildlife concerns. The resulting area is 110,091 acres split into two equal parts. 

One of the main reasons for cutting back was to avoid harming the North Atlantic right whale habitat, which represented more than 66,000 acres of ocean when initially proposed.

According to BOEM, an environmental assessment, including consulting with conservation agencies, is done prior to negotiating an offshore wind lease. Along with Duke Energy and TotalEnergies, BOEM will conduct additional environmental reviews and studies prior to development.

“BOEM included a stipulation, at the recommendation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, requiring the use of … tracking stations on [weather] buoys to help address information gaps on offshore movements of birds and bats,” BOEM spokesperson Lissa Eng told Port City Daily.

Wind developers are strongly encouraged, though not mandated, to work with researchers and scientists, such as the Audubon Society, to ensure environmental threats are assessed ahead of wind turbine installation. A TotalEnergies spokesperson confirmed the company plans to engage local stakeholders, including conservation groups, as part of its project development.

“Leading wind energy companies realize its advantageous to engage early on with researchers, scientists and environmental partners who have expertise in this area,” Andeck said. “When wind developers don’t do that, don’t engage stakeholders, they tend to see more regulatory delays, or in extreme cases, litigation to halt or slow projects from coming online.”

In Wyoming, Duke Energy was prosecuted in 2013 for the fatality of 163 protected birds that died from turbine collisions.

Andeck said it’s still early in the planning stages for Duke Energy and TotalEnergies — winners of the two offshore leases near Brunswick County — but the Audubon will reach out to help the two protect birds.

“The state has an opportunity here,” he said. “It needs to take more leadership over establishing a forum and space where environmental experts and developers work through these challenges together.”

He added six other states on the Atlantic Coast have technology advisory groups already, highlighting potential conflicts with wind energy and wildlife.

“We’re going to be very active in monitoring potential impacts of the Kitty Hawk project as that comes along,” he added. 

Andeck is talking about Avangrid Renewbales that acquired the lease in 2017 to develop a project 27 miles off the coast of the Outer Banks. The 200-square-mile area was selected to minimize impacts to military, commercial and recreational fishing, the shipping industry and the environment. It has the potential to yield around 2,500 megawatts, or enough energy to power 700,000 homes.

“It will absolutely inform the projects built off Wilmington,” he said. “Organizations like Audubon can play a key role in transferring some knowledge from developer to developer.”

While Andeck said offshore wind is “by no means a silver bullet,” it’s another important tool in the toolbox for protecting future wildlife. Changes to the climate can cause significant harm to birds in terms of temperature, availability of fish and heavy weather incidents, which could knock eggs out of nests and affect the energy in their migratory patterns.

“We basically need to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “I think we can do that, but it’s important for developers, scientists and the environmental community to come together to make that happen.”

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