August 4, 2009

Wyoming Whipped Up In Wind Energy Debate

Southern Wyoming is embroiled in a debate over what might be the energy source of the future: wind.

At the center of the debate are plans to construct wind farms that conservationists worry could upset fragile habitat like sagebrush.

This has caused the greater sage grouse, which is dependent on sagebrush, to become the poster child for U.S. environmentalists.

Wyoming houses 54% of the greater sage grouse inhabitants in North America. The bird is being reviewed for addition into the U.S. government's threatened or endangered species list, which would allow it to have more defenses.

The issue is that the bird makes a home in the windy open spaces that make Wyoming appealing to the wind industry.

"They want to build it around here but we need to be thinking truly green. It is not just about our carbon footprint," Alison Holloran of the National Audubon Society in Wyoming told Reuters.

Wind power will be a part in any step that the United States takes to cut the emissions made from greenhouse gases. The use of coal and other fossil fuels like oil are the biggest sources of carbon emissions, so they are hunting for cleaner burning energy sources.

Although wind sounds about as "green" an energy source as you can find, several environmentalists are not so sure.

The wind turbines and the areas that are a part of them, like the roads and transmission lines, will harm the critical sage habitat and bother the grouse and other wildlife.

Horizon Wind Energy feels that the grouse problem needs more study.

"There is no peer-reviewed research on how sage grouse respond to turbines," said Arlo Corwin, Horizon's development director. "We believe that obtaining this research is essential to see if wind turbines and sage grouse are going to be able to coexist."

Wind contributes 1.25% to the US's electricity supply, but the industry is expanding quickly, states the American Wind Energy Association. It adds that wind power now compensates for 54 million tons of carbon in one year.

In Wyoming, there are 20 wind farms and four others being built, the association notes. The state is 12th in U.S. wind production but seventh in potential, meaning that the state has untapped potential.

In the western landscape, sage maintains life. The greater sage grouse and 20 other birds live off it, and the plant also feeds larger game like elk and mule deer.

In 2008, Wyoming decided to confine development on greater sage grouse areas that it labeled "core population areas."

"The impact of fragmentation is very, very clear. We know that they won't occupy habitat close to an interstate for example. They are a landscape species and need big open intact habitats," said Brian Kelly, a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming.

20% of the state is labeled as "core" for the great sage grouse.

"If we conserve that 20 percent we effectively conserve 40 percent of the birds in North America. That's why it is significant," Kelly said.

The state approximates that 14% of Wyoming's "economically viable wind areas," which are based on wind strength, speed and duration, are within core sage and grouse areas, while 86% is outside.

"We don't need to pick one or the other, grouse or wind. We can have robust sage grouse populations and robust wind development in Wyoming -- no problem," said Aaron Clark, an energy advisor to the governor.

The wind industry disagrees with these statistics and several definitions used by both the wildlife and state officials.


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