Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Welcoming the new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Voluntary Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines:

By Amanda Sweetman, Sea Grant Fellow
Great Lakes Commission

Prior to joining the Great Lakes Commission as the 2012-2013 Sea Grant-Great Lakes Commission Fellow, my thoughts on wind power revolved (pun intended) around my awe of the size and majesty of the turbines. Since taking the position however, I’ve been working hard to get up to speed (another pun) on the current state of wind power in the U.S., and more specifically on the role of the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative in the development of wind power in the Great Lakes region. One of the first tasks I was given was to educate myself on the ins and outs of the new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Voluntary Land-based Wind Energy Guidelines: what are they, how will they impact wind energy development, and how will they be implemented? Below I attempt to answer these questions:

What are the USFWS Guidelines? The Guidelines are a voluntary, tier-based scientific process for “addressing wildlife conservation concerns at all stages of land-based wind energy development” (USFWS). More specifically these guidelines are designed to limit impacts on species of concern.  Species of concern are those that that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are responsible for protecting as part of the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Although these guidelines are voluntary, the Service has said that a developer’s adherence to the process will reduce, not eliminate, the likelihood of legal action if an incidental take of a species of concern occurs.

The tiers are laid out in an easily understood, logical manner that, hopefully, will lead to greater protections for species of concern in the development of wind farms. Each tier is designed to build off the previous one and collect information in increasing detail to assess and evaluate potential risks to species of concern and their habitats. (See the full document for more information.)

Tier 1: Preliminary site evaluation

Tier 2: Site characterization

Tier 3: Field studies and impact prediction

Tier 4: Post construction studies to estimate impacts

Tier 5: Other post-construction studies and research

According to the Guidelines, the most important part of this process is to communicate early and often with the Service. In the document, the Service promises quick turnaround (no more than 60 days) of all communications.

How will they impact wind development? The Guidelines may increase development time due to the iterative process and communication with the Service. However, I believe they will encourage environmental stewardship, promote the ideas of adaptive management, and create a nationwide database with standardized data. The Guidelines were also developed by a wide range of stakeholders including people from federal, state, tribal, non-profit, and business organizations. Hopefully, the collaborative spirit of the document will continue as the number of wind farms increase and we, as a nation, come to terms with the associated impacts of these developments.

Let’s not forget the assurances the Services has made about the reduced likelihood of legal prosecution in case of an incidental take of a species of concern! The Guidelines are akin to looking both ways before crossing the street. Following them is no guarantee that you’ll be safe, but it’s a lot better than just stepping off the curb.

How will the Guidelines be implemented? The need for contact with the Service early and often suggests the need for regional offices of the Service to have an understanding of the Guidelines and an intimate knowledge of the areas in which there are species of concern. It will also take time and training for Service staff and wind developers to fully understand how to follow the Guidelines. The Guidelines promise the “Service will make every effort to offer an in-depth course [on the implementation of the Guidelines] within six months of the final Guidelines being published” (USFWS). However, it is unclear who will be invited to this course, how often the course will be held, and who will be doing the training.

My thinking is that the Service could and should take advantage of existing groups, such as the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative (GLWC), to help with the implementation of the Guidelines. The GLWC has a broad network with more than 700 stakeholders across the binational Great Lakes region and is led by a multi-stakeholder Steering Committee. The GLWC can facilitate integration of the Guidelines with state and local rules and ordinances to reduce redundancy and promote the environmentally-conscious growth of the wind industry in the Great Lakes. 

Concluding Thoughts: Overall, I find the Guidelines a positive, encouraging tool for the responsible development of wind power in this country. As a scientist, I am encouraged by the scientific approach these guidelines take as well as the inclusion of well thought-out best management practices at the end of the document. Recommendations about using native seed for replanting struck particularly close to home due to my past research on native plant restoration.

Personally, the voluntary nature of the Guidelines is a little troubling. There are laws that dictate when individuals can and cannot cross the street. So, why is it that when industry wants to develop wind farms that the Service can only take action after a negative outcome? At which point the damage may already have been done. Also, I would like to see more proactive mechanisms for avoiding impacts on wildlife initiated by government agencies.  One possibility is to provide incentives for redeveloping brownfields and old industrial areas. Not only would this reduce impacts on wildlife and green areas, but it would also bring energy production closer to areas of energy use.


  1. A comment from Steve Ugortez:

    I was just wondering whether GLWC is planning to follow up on this discussion of the land-based guidelines with an evaluation of how they do and don't apply to offshore facilities? I think that is a very important piece of information for the reader to know, and should be explicitly emphasized. There will be a lot of uncertainty until freshwater installations are up and running, and have been monitored for wildlife and aquatic impacts for an extended period (at least 2 years).
    Most of the potential In-lake effects aren't a factor at all in the land-based guidelines, and may have to be developed and tested before being used to screen potential sites in the Lakes. Guidelines for offshore impacts do not exist, or have no close correlates, in the aquatic environment, and that includes different uses and use patterns by birds and bats, something I can't emphasize enough. The current guidelines offer a great potential for modeling offshore interactions, but need to be verified in practice and carefully considered for application offshore.

    Those caveats should, in my opinion, be explicitly stated and a path towards addressing them should be suggested. The industry will undoubtedly react strongly to a poorly-conceived approach, and more friction could result from a too literal application of the land-based guidelnes. So, the stakes are high, and a cooperative approach (that GLWC could easily facilitate) is warranted.

  2. Thanks for your insightful comment, Steve. The GLWC is working hard on several project that are studying potential impacts of offshore facilities. These projects include a pelagic bird survey, a nearshore bird survey, and we are planning a study that will focus on potential impacts on Great Lakes fisheries. We hope that these studies and discussions among the various stakeholders in the wind industry will lead to well-developed offshore guidelines.