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Will Google wind power project harm wildlife?

NEW YORK — Before Google or any other groups invest in undersea transmission lines to bring wind power to the mid-Atlantic coast area, they might want to talk with the National Audubon Society.
While the Audubon Society supports the concept of clea

NEW YORK — Before Google or any other groups invest in undersea transmission lines to bring wind power to the mid-Atlantic coast area, they might want to talk with the National Audubon Society.

While the Audubon Society supports the concept of clean wind energy, it has concerns — one of them being what impact wind generators could have on migrating birds in the fall. Also, Audubon would not like to see turbines built where the undersea canyons come close to land, because that is where seabirds such as puffins and Wilson’s storm petrels gorge on small fish.

“The three keys to siting the wind farms are location, location, location,” says Mike Daulton, vice president for governmental relations for Audubon in Washington. “As long as there is proper siting, this is a promising development.”

Daulton was reacting to the news on Tuesday that Google and some partners have agreed to invest in a proposed $5 billion “backbone” transmission line that would bring wind-generated power to a significant portion of the mid-Atlantic coast, from Virginia to New York, by 2020.

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This project would be much further offshore than the Cape Wind project off Massachusetts. The mid-Atlantic venture would position wind turbines at least 12 to 15 miles offshore, which means they would not be easily visible from land.

If the transmission line is built, according to some reports, it could move as much as 6,000 megawatts. That’s enough energy to supply 1.9 million to 4.5 million households depending on the season, say utility-industry sources.

It would be equivalent to five nuclear power plants, says the company proposing to build the transmission line, Trans-Elect Development in Maryland.

Robert Mitchell, CEO of Trans-Elect, is well aware of the environmental concerns but says they shouldn’t kill the project.

“Because the wind generation would be further out to sea, it is less likely to have an impact on bird migration and sea-mammal migration since birds tend to follow closer to shore,” he says in an interview. He adds, “It is so much better than each of the wind generators building their own transmission lines all over the seabed.”

Initially, Trans-Elect has three investors to fund the development work: Marubeni, a Japanese conglomerate, which will fund 15 percent of the project; and Good Energies (an investor in clean energy) and Google, with 37.5 percent each. Trans-Elect is forming a new company, Atlantic Grid Development, which will put up 10 percent.

But before any wind farms get built, Audubon would like to see at least one full year of intensive study of bird life where the large turbines would be built. For most birds, the over-water migration takes place mainly in the fall, says Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation. In the spring, the birds migrate north over land.

Anyone hired to study the birds, Butcher says, can examine Doppler radar images and record birds at night as they make “chip notes,” which warn other birds to be careful of them.

In good weather, most of the birds would be too high to run into the generators. But during fog or storms, he says, they are forced to fly lower.

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“We don’t know if there would be any problems. It’s really hard to say. Let’s do a study to find out,” says Butcher.

In addition, Butcher does not want to see any wind turbines built near Hudson Canyon or some of the other places where seabirds congregate. Gulls, terns, puffins, and other birds often fly offshore to eat the small fish that are chased to the surface by predator fish, such as tuna.

“Kicking them out of their habitat is what I am most worried about,” Butcher says.

One company that could be involved in the project’s wind generation, Fishermen’s Energy in Cape May, N.J., has recently started some environmental monitoring for a pilot wind project supplying 20 megawatts 2.8 miles off Atlantic City. That would supply about 8,000 homes, depending on the season.

Last week, a barge took core samples to determine the characteristics of the bottom for anchoring wind turbines in the sea, which is about 40 feet deep in that location. “We’re also doing some avian and marine mammal monitoring,” says Rhonda Jackson, a spokesman for Fishermen’s Energy.

“In preconstruction monitoring, we’re looking at whales, dolphins, turtles,” she says. Endangered right whales also swim up and down the coast during certain times of the year.

“This project will have to address the marine mammals in the many stages of environmental permitting,” says Sean Dixon, coastal policy attorney for Clean Ocean Action, an environmental group in Highlands, N.J. “It is a project with a lot of potential, but just like anything else, it has to be done in an environmental manner. The battle over where, when, and how will be arduous.”

Mitchell of Trans-Elect agrees that studies need to be done. “There will be studies on top of studies,” he says.