Wind farm on the Belvoir Ranch

Be careful what you wish for: wind development on the Belvoir Ranch has its downsides

The prairie is green June 11, 2016, on Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch, 10 miles west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This edition of Bird Banter was published Feb. 10, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first Bird Banter column for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. I wrote about cool birds seen on the ponds at the Rawhide coal-powered plant 20 miles south of Cheyenne, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/birding-the-colorado-coast/.

            This month’s topic is also connected to Rawhide. It’s NextEra’s 120-turbine Roundhouse Wind Energy Center slated partly for the City of Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch.

           Roundhouse will stretch between I-80 south to the Wyoming border and from a couple miles west of I-25 on west 12 miles to Harriman Road. The Belvoir is within. It’s roughly a two-to-three-mile-wide frame on the north and west sides. All the power will go to Rawhide and tie into Front Range utilities.

            The 2008 Belvoir masterplan designated an area for wind turbines. In the last 10 years I’ve learned about wind energy drawbacks. I wish the coal industry had spent millions developing clean air technology instead of fighting clean air regulations.

            We know modern wind turbines are tough on birds. Duke Energy has a robotic system that shuts down turbines when raptors approach (https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/eagle-safety-collaboration/). Roundhouse needs one—a raptor migration corridor exists along the north-south escarpment along its west edge.

            But in Kenn Kaufman’s new book, “A Season on the Wind,” he discovers that a windfarm far from known migration hot spots still killed at least 40 species of birds. Directly south of the Belvoir, 125 bird species have been documented through eBird at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and 95 at Red Mountain Open Space. Both are in Colorado, butting against the state line.

           Only a few miles to the east, Cheyenne hotpots vary from 198 species at Lions Park to 266 at Wyoming Hereford Ranch, with as many as 150 species overall observed on single days in May. With little public access to the Belvoir since the city bought it in 2003 (I’ve been there on two tours and the 2016 Bioblitz), only NextEra has significant bird data, from its consultants.

            There are migrating bats to consider, plus mule deer who won’t stomach areas close to turbines—even if it is their favorite mountain mahogany habitat on the ridges. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department can only suggest mitigation and monitoring measures.

            There are human safety and liability issues. The Friends of the Belvoir wants a trailhead on the west edge with trails connecting to Red Mountain and Soapstone. Wind turbines don’t bother them. However, during certain atmospheric conditions, large sheets of ice fly off the blades–“ice throw.” Our area, the hail capital, could have those conditions develop nearly any month of the year.

            The noise will impact neighbors (and wildlife too) when turbines a mile away interfere with sleep. Disrupted sleep is implicated in many diseases.

            Low frequency pulses felt six miles away (the distance between the east end of the windfarm and city limits) or more cause dizziness, tinnitus, heart palpitations and pressure sensations in the head and chest. The Belvoir will have bigger turbines than those on Happy Jack Road, reaching 499 feet high, 99 feet higher.

            A minor issue is the viewshed. In Colorado, the public and officials worked to place the transmission line from the Belvoir to Rawhide so that it wouldn’t impact Soapstone or Red Mountain. What will they think watching Roundhouse blades on the horizon?

            Because this wind development is not on federal land, it isn’t going through the familiar Environmental Impact Statement process. I’d assume the city has turbine placement control written into the lease.

           The first opportunity for the public to comment at the county level is Feb. 19. And in advance, the public can request to “be a party” when the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council meets to consider NextEra’s permit in March.

            NextEra held an open house in Cheyenne November 28. They expect to get their permits and then break ground almost immediately. This speedy schedule is so the windfarm is operational by December 2020, before federal tax incentives end.

            It doesn’t seem to me that we—Cheyenne residents—have adequate time to consider the drawbacks of new era wind turbines—for people or wildlife. Look at the 2008 Master Plan, http://belvoirranch.org.  Is it upheld by spreading wind turbines over the entire 20,000 acres, more than originally planned? People possibly, and wildlife certainly, will be experiencing low frequency noise for 30 years.

            At the very least, I’d like to see NextEra move turbines back from the western boundary two miles, for the good of raptors, other birds, mule deer, trail users, and the neighbors living near Harriman Road. The two southernmost sections are already protected with The Nature Conservancy’s conservation easement.            

           What I’d really like to see instead is more solar development on rooftops and over parking lots in Cheyenne. Or a new style of Wyoming snow fence that turns wind into energy while protecting highways.

Bioblitz participants look and listen for birds along Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch June 11, 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.
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Eagle safety collaboration

golden-eagle-courtesy-audubon-rockies

Golden Eagle. Photo courtesy of Audubon Rockies.

Published Sept. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Collaboration could keep eagles safe.”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, while researching the wind energy/eagle issue, I learned about new technology that could help eagles survive encounters with wind farms.

IdentiFlight uses stereoscopic cameras to detect and identify eagles in flight far enough out to shut down a turbine, preventing a deadly collision.

The idea that cameras hooked up to a computer can learn to “see” eagles, using machine vision technology, is as remarkable as the collaboration behind it.

It starts with Renewable Energy Systems, started in 1982, and now a global company in the business of designing and installing as well as developing wind energy projects.

I spoke with Tom Hiester, vice president of strategy for RES Americas, whose office is in Broomfield, Colorado.

He said RES is funding the development of IdentiFlight and will own the rights to the technology and sell equipment. Other wind companies concerned with avoiding the fines for killing eagles will be the customers.

RES is working with Boulder Imaging, a Boulder, Colorado, tech company specializing in industrial precision applications.

Initial testing of the IdentiFlight system was done through the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Its testing facility, the National Wind Technology Center, is south of Boulder on 300 acres up against the foothills, where the wind can be ferocious. Companies, universities and government agencies come to test their turbines for reliability and performance.

Machine vision requires training the computer. In this case, it needed to see how real eagles fly. A golden eagle and a bald eagle were brought in from the Southeastern Raptor Center, where birds of prey are rehabilitated. They also happened to be the mascots for Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama. You can see a video at www.energy.gov/eagles.

Hiester told me they have found that eagles are more susceptible to collisions when hunting. Their heads are down, eyes concentrating on the ground. Machine vision has to identify a moving object as an eagle at 1,000 meters to give the appropriate turbine the 30 seconds needed to shut down.

This summer, IdentiFlight is getting tested by a third party selected by the American Wind Wildlife Institute. AWWI was organized about eight years ago. Half its partners are a who’s who of wind energy companies. The other half are national environmental organizations such as Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as wildlife managers represented by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and scientists represented by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

One of AWWI’s interests is minimizing eagle deaths. They expect to publish and share what they learn. Besides detecting and deterring eagles from wind turbine collisions, they are also looking at lead abatement (lead shot in carcasses left by hunters will poison eagles because eagles often eat dead animals), reducing vehicle strikes (by removing dead animals along roads), and improving the habitat of eagle prey species.

AWWI science advisors include Dale Strickland of Cheyenne. His environmental consulting firm, Western EcoSystems Technology, has studied wind and wildlife interactions across the country for a number of years.

AWWI selected the Peregrine Fund to conduct the testing. The Peregrine Fund, established in Idaho in 1970 to protect and reestablish peregrine falcon populations, also works now with other raptors around the world.

The test site is Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm outside Casper. In general, Wyoming has more eagles than other states, and some of our topographic features that cause strong wind also concentrate eagles.

For the test, IdentiFlight cameras have been set up on a tower with a 360-degree view. When motion is identified as an eagle, and velocity and proximity figured, human researchers in an observation tower confirm it. In the future, the system would be totally automated and the identification of an eagle would trigger the shutdown of the turbine in the eagle’s path. IdentiFlight can also be used to survey for eagles on prospective wind sites.

Hiester said the number of eagles actually killed by wind turbines is minor. There are more deaths from other causes. But as more and more wind projects are built, that could change, especially in Wyoming where there is a lot of wind and a lot of eagles.

Most other bird species flying through wind farms don’t have the federal protections that eagles do. IdentiFlight won’t do much for them unless they fly alongside the eagles. Hiester said that thermal imaging techniques could help identify them and bats.

Hiester has been invited to share the results of this summer’s IdentiFlight trials the evening of January 17, 2017, at the meeting of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, which is expected to be held at the Laramie County Public Library.