New wind turbine maps could reduce impacts to radar, birds, landscapes

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Interior Department today released an online mapping tool and data pinpointing the locations of more than 47,000 onshore wind power turbines, a two-year effort Interior officials say will help ensure that commercial-scale wind development has as few landscape-level impacts as possible.

The interactive map represents the first time the locations of every onshore wind turbine installed since last July have been collected and mapped on one website. And federal officials said today it should help researchers better gauge the impacts of wind development on everything from air traffic radars to fatal bird collisions with turbine blades.

The mapping tool, devised by the U.S. Geological Survey, is part of a larger effort by the agency to develop a systemic methodology to analyze the full impacts of large-scale wind power development nationwide, said Brenda Pierce, USGS energy resources program coordinator.

“This kind of basic data on wind turbines is really critical to allow wind energy development to be viewed at a landscape level,” Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Anne Castle said today during a teleconference with reporters. “Before the release of this USGS work, we had some individual state maps with turbine information and some national maps that showed wind facilities. What we didn’t have is what we’re releasing today: a national map with turbine-specific information and verified locations.”

Having that information in one location “will improve scientists’ ability to study a number of factors associated with renewable energy development, including air wakes caused by the turbines, interactions between wind turbines and ground-based radar, and how wind facilities overlap with migratory bird flyways,” Pierce said during the teleconference.

“Building on the map and data set, the USGS will utilize research, modeling and monitoring data to develop a quantitative methodology to assess the potential impacts associated with the widespread development of wind energy on wildlife,” she said.

Castle said the wind turbine mapping tool helps advance the goals set out in an order issued last year by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calling for the development of an agencywide mitigation strategy to offset energy project impacts to federal lands (Greenwire, Oct. 31, 2013).

The mitigation strategy outlined in Jewell’s order promotes the efficient permitting of infrastructure projects while conserving lands for recreation, cultural resources and wildlife habitat.

“In making this critical information available to the public, the USGS has provided public agencies and private companies with a new tool to help guide smart landscape-level planning decisions that support domestic energy production while minimizing conflicts,” Jewell said today in a statement. “The data will help improve the siting of future wind energy projects as well as aid land managers in devising more up-to-date land-use and multiple-use plans.”

The wind turbine maps were more than two years in the making, and they were built using data provided from multiple sources, including the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Energy Information Administration and state agencies. The site of each turbine on the map was verified visually using high-resolution aerial imagery.

The maps allow viewers to access detailed information about individual wind farms and turbines, including the height of the turbines and the blade length of each one.

The information could allow researchers to better study potential impacts of wind farms, such as the Department of Defense’s long-held concerns about turbines interfering with radar.

Wind turbine blades can create “clutter” that obscures radar coverage over wind farms. The blades can also “shadow” low-flying aircraft before the turbine’s rotors, preventing radar operators from knowing what aircraft, flight pattern, speed or altitude was in the area and creating an obvious security concern at military bases.

Technologies have been developed and implemented at some military installations that can filter out radar interference.

The issue is also a key concern for renewables developers given that DOD uses more than 30 million acres of land — much of it in sunny and windy spaces that are prime for renewable energy projects.

Another concern is the growing wind industry’s impacts on migratory birds.

A study published last year and led by government and academic researchers found new wind farms can kill as many as 328,000 birds each year in collisions (E&ENews PM, Dec. 10, 2013).

Having a map pinpointing the locations of wind turbines can help locate where there is overlap between wind farms and migratory bird flyways, Pierce said.

The maps come at a time when the wind industry is growing rapidly.

There are currently nearly 900 utility-scale wind power projects in operation representing more than 60,000 megawatts of electricity in 39 U.S. states and Puerto Rico, according to the American Wind Energy Association. What’s more, according to the trade group, a record 10,900 MW worth of wind projects started construction during the fourth quarter of 2013, ending in December.

These projects could power the equivalent of 3.5 million homes, or all the households in Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas, according to AWEA.

The Obama administration has made it a priority to increase the use of renewable energy sources by encouraging development on federal lands where the Bureau of Land Management manages an estimated 20.6 million acres with wind potential.

BLM has approved 10 commercial-scale wind projects since 2009. And President Obama last year announced a far-ranging plan to combat climate change in which he challenged the Interior Department to approve an additional 10,000 MW of renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020.

In total, Interior has approved 48 solar, wind and geothermal power plants on nearly 300,000 acres of federal land. If all are built, the projects will have a total capacity to produce more than 13,300 MW of electricity, or enough to power 4.6 million homes.