Calif. project seeks 5-year eagle ‘take’ permit

Source: Phil Taylor, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to allow a California wind farm to incidentally kill up to three federally protected golden eagles over the next five years.

The permit would require NRG Yield Inc., which owns the 153-megawatt Alta East Wind Project in Kern County, to retrofit at least 74 area power poles within a year to prevent electrocutions of birds and take other steps to reduce mortality.

While the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act makes it illegal to kill or harm either eagle species, a 2009 rule issued by FWS allows companies to obtain five-year take permits if they agree to avoid and mitigate harm.

In June 2014, the agency issued its first-ever five-year permit to a subsidiary of EDF Renewable Energy, allowing the take of up to five eagles over five years at a 50-turbine wind farm north of San Francisco (E&ENews PM, June 26, 2014). The potential eagle deaths at the Shiloh IV project would be more than offset by the company’s agreement to within one year retrofit 133 power lines to reduce eagle deaths from electrocutions, FWS concluded.

Similarly, a take permit for the Alta East project would provide legal protection for NRG while ensuring no significant harm to the region’s eagle populations, FWS said.

“The applicant would implement a conservation program to avoid, minimize and compensate for the project’s impacts to eagles,” the agency said today.

It is giving the public 60 days to comment on a¬†draft environmental assessment¬†gauging the impacts of the proposed permit. The draft EA considers four alternatives for issuing the permit and concludes that all of them would meet the standard of “no net loss” of eagles.

The 2,300-acre project, which is located mostly on federal lands within and adjacent to the Tehachapi Wind Resource Area (WRA), was approved by the Bureau of Land Management in May 2013.

The project’s 50 turbines harness cooler valley air that is drawn into a mountain pass to fill a void left by the naturally rising hot desert air. They’re among roughly 5,000 turbines in the Tehachapi WRA that generate more than 3,000 megawatts of electricity.

Approval of the project in 2013 was controversial given its potential impact on endangered California condors, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act (Greenwire, May 24, 2013).

FWS then issued a first-ever authorization allowing Alta East to injure or kill up to one condor during the 30-year life of the project.

Terra-Gen Power LLC, which owned the project at the time, committed to installing very high frequency equipment that can pick up signals from radio telemetry devices placed on all California condors that allow the wind-farm operators to detect condors as far as 16 miles away. The detection of condors within 2 miles would signal to operators to reduce wind-turbine speeds to 15 mph. The company also agreed to contribute $100,000 a year for the life of the project to the Condor Recovery Program to implement a lead-abatement program.

The project had already been significantly scaled back from original plans to erect as many as 106 wind turbines.

A smaller footprint helped avoid impacts to some desert tortoise and Joshua tree woodland habitat adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail on the north end of the project site. In addition, the project reduced impacts to golden eagles by eliminating nine proposed turbines on the north end that were about 2 miles from three active nests.