U.S. could power nation with wind energy without harming wildlife, study says

Source: By Sarah Spicer, The Wichita Eagle • Posted: Tuesday, July 28, 2020

In 17 states in the central U.S. there is enough low impact land to house wind energy to meet or exceed any foreseeable renewable energy goal, according to a new analysis from The Nature Conservancy.

Wind energy development generates opposition for a few reasons, such as as the noise, lack of aesthetics and likely most notably, it’s danger to wildlife. The latter concern was why the project was developed.

The study focused on finding land that had high wind energy capability and were low-impact sites, or areas where wind turbines wouldn’t endanger wildlife or encroach on protected land and was successful in finding enough land to potentially power the U.S.

“Within the broader wind belt region we have a 1,000 gigawatts of low impact wind potential that could be developed theoretically,” said Nathan Cummins, the project leader and the Great Plains Renewable Energy Strategy director. “That’s a ton of energy. That’s basically comparable to all of the electrical capacity of the United States right now.”

The project called Site Wind Right originated in Kansas, was finished in early July and covers 17 states in the U.S. “wind-belt.” It is available online in a map to help place wind projects with people, wildlife and environmental conservation in mind.

It also states that in Kansas there are 4.4 million acres available for wind development, the third highest in the nation, following Texas and Iowa.

Locations are ruled out for a number of reasons, chiefly because of unique ecosystems, protected lands or habitats of protected species, but also because of cities’ locations, engineering constraints due to topography, and the fragmenting impact it might have on local wildlife.

“Kansas is one of the better states for having a lot of opportunity to do wind right,” said Brian Obermeyer of The Nature Conservancy. “There’s really no reason why we can’t do 100% of wind energy in Kansas in low risk areas. There’s a few states where there’s not as much opportunity and and we might need to revisit, at some point, if they were going to develop wind to look at mitigation. But in Kansas we certainly have lots of opportunity to do it right without sacrificing wildlife resources.”

The Nature Conservancy partnered with organizations in all 17 states and gathered more than 100 data sets from conservation and land use organizations as well as state agencies. More than 60 scientists worked to develop the map, according to Cummins.

The project began in 2011, after a group of researchers led by Obermeyer, the Kansas Land Protection and Stewardship director for the conservancy, wrote a paper looking at how wind energy in Kansas could be developed without putting in danger important ecological sites, such as the Flint Hills which houses the last remaining 4% of native tallgrass prairie in North America.

“We were involved in trying to figure out how to steer wind energy out of the Flint Hills and into other areas of the state,” Obermeyer said. “We’ve got a lot of agricultural areas where wind and wildlife really don’t conflict with one another like they might do in the Flint Hills. I’ve been involved for quite a few years in trying to not discourage wind developments, but encourage good sites.”

The hope is that the map will be used by developers to avoid unsuitable sites. The tallgrass prairie is one example representing many locations in the 17 ‘wind-belt’ states that need to protected, despite how prime they are for wind development.

Wind turbines dwarf a traditional windmill at the Flat Ridge 2 wind farm that spans Kingman, Harper and Barber counties. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle