May 31, 2006

Wind Farms, Biologists Join Kansas Chicken Study

By Leonard Anderson

SAN FRANCISCO - The greater prairie-chicken's courtship season, when the males launch loud and colorful displays to woo mates, attracts naturalists and bird watchers from around the world.

These days, the prairie-chicken, which makes its home on the Kansas plains, is also getting much scrutiny from energy companies, biologists, wildlife groups and government agencies.

That is because the windy sites it loves may also be the perfect place for a wind farm. And in an unusual example of cooperation between energy companies and environmentalists, the fate of the bird is being considered in a four-year study before development begins.

"This is about doing wind energy right, putting it where it doesn't do significant ecological damage and developing to get the benefits that wind energy promises," said Rob Manes, conservation director for The Nature Conservancy of Kansas.

One of the most sensitive grassland birds, the prairie- chicken -- or Tympanuchus cupido -- needs wide open range to wander in search of insects, other food and nesting sites, naturalists say.

How wind farms may affect nesting areas is a key part of the study, Manes said. If nesting birds abandon their habitat, reproduction will drop and their numbers will decline, he said.

Although wind power accounts for only a fraction of U.S. power output, it is now the second-largest source of new generation behind natural gas, according to the American Wind Energy Association, or AWEA.

As alternative energy projects gain interest as fast as the price of oil rises, would-be developers are realizing that the same types of environmental and other problems that affect oil and natural gas exploration can also plague clean-energy initiatives.

"The prairie-chicken is still relatively abundant, but the problem is they are mainly a tall-grass species and less than 4 percent of the tall-grass prairie remains in North America," Manes said.

The bird is part of the grouse family with colors unlike a barnyard chicken that help it to blend in with the grasslands. The prairie-chicken once ranged as far as the East Coast but now is centered in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.


Clashes over clean-energy projects in the United States have a history. Plans for liquefied natural gas terminals along the California and Oregon coasts have drawn fire from environmentalists.

A "not-in-my-backyard" fight has erupted over the nation's first offshore wind farm proposed in Nantucket Sound off Massachusetts. Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Edward Kennedy are outspoken opponents, as are many wealthy residents who own coastal property and belong to exclusive yacht clubs in the area.

Uncertainty over continued federal tax credits to support wind production also can hobble projects.

Wind companies "can be hurt by the artificial deadlines and costs imposed by the short-term cycles of the production tax credit," Laurie Jodziewicz, a plant siting specialist at AWEA, said. "If a project is delayed because it is participating in a multiyear research program, it risks losing the ability to benefit from the credit."

U.S. developers built and completed more than 2,400 megawatts of wind power in 2005 -- more than any other country -- and 3,000 megawatts are expected this year.

One megawatt of wind energy can power about 250 to 300 homes with no emissions of the gases from power plants fired by coal or gas, according to AWEA.

Kansas, whose name means "land of the south wind" in the language of the Kansa, or Kaw, tribe, already has 264 megawatts of installed wind capacity, which make it one of the largest generators in the Plains states. Its neighbors Nebraska and Oklahoma also have wind-energy potential.

Wind companies are looking closely at the Flint Hills region of eastern Kansas, which has plenty of wind as well as transmission lines that would let a wind farm deliver power to distant customers, said Brett Sandercock, assistant professor of avian ecology at Kansas State University and one of the principal researchers.

The prairie-chicken has one advantage going into the study: Unlike in California, where wind blades have killed thousands of birds and protected raptors at one of the nation's largest wind projects, Kansas turbines probably would not harm the prairie-chicken because it flies low to the ground, Sandercock said.

The FPL Energy unit of FPL Group, which operates a wind farm in the state, Scottish Power PLC's PPM Energy subsidiary, and Horizon Wind Energy are contributing to the study.

Research will be conducted on land where wind projects are proposed and in control areas where development is not planned, Sandercock said. The experimental and control sites are currently undisturbed prairie rangeland.