April 6, 2012 | Sustainability + Energy

At NRG Systems, we care passionately about two things: getting more wind turbines on the ground to generate clean, renewable energy, and putting them in environmentally responsible places. As a founder and close partner of the American Wind Wildlife Institute and through conversations with our customers, we know that reconciling these two goals can sometimes be complex. Fighting climate change by replacing fossil fuel consumption with renewable energy is critically important, and new guidance will now make it more attainable.

On March 23, the U.S. Department of the Interior released new voluntary guidelines for wind turbine siting. The long-awaited guidelines were worked out through a broad collaborative process, with assistance from a 22-member Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee.

For several years, wind-wildlife scientists and experts from federal, state, and tribal agencies, the wind energy industry, and conservation nonprofits – including The National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, Massachusetts Audubon, and Bat Conservation International – sat down together to reach consensus and hammer out recommendations. The Fish and Wildlife Service then worked through two draft versions of the guidelines, incorporating extensive public testimony and input, before releasing the final set last month.

What Will the New Guidelines Do?

Overlapping jurisdictions, patchwork regulations, and failure to agree on “best practices” have all been obstacles to siting wind farms. Even when all sides agree on the need for environmental responsibility and are ready to put the right steps in place, it is rarely clear what those right steps are. For the first time, the new guidelines set out a consistent federal framework of recommended studies, monitoring, and operational procedures for placing and running wind farms to minimize impacts on wildlife and habitat.

The guidelines offer a tiered-structure approach to identify species of concern and their critical habitat, including breeding grounds and migratory paths. By working with environmental and conservation organizations early in the planning process to spot potential problems, wind developers can confidently make decisions to avoid areas at greater risk for wildlife or habitat impact or design remedies or mitigations for them.

By releasing voluntary guidelines rather than mandatory procedures, the Fish and Wildlife Service was able to move beyond restricted regulatory boundaries to build a much broader framework for action, based on up-to-date scientific findings. The guidelines go beyond protections offered by the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and other wildlife law, adding protection for species and habitat of conservation concern. These include bat species and non-migratory birds such as prairie chicken and sage grouse, and other species not listed as federally threatened or endangered that could be at risk of habitat fragmentation through wind energy development.

“A Game Changer”

David Yarnold, president and CEO of The National Audubon Society, says “These first-ever federal guidelines are a game-changer and big win for both wildlife and clean energy. By collaborating with conservationists instead of slugging it out, the wind power industry gains vital support to expand and create jobs, and wildlife gets the protection crucial for survival.”

Industry leaders like NRG Systems CEO Jan Blittersdorf have lent their support to the ongoing conversation in several forums. Jan is the board chair of the American Wind Wildlife Institute, a national nonprofit convened by conservation and wind industry leaders. AWWI provided technical assistance during the guidelines development and will support their implementation, identifying further wind-wildlife research priorities, designing landscape assessment resources, and providing increased access to scientific data collected at wind energy sites.

“AWWI is committed to building workable solutions to wind-wildlife challenges that are grounded in science,” Jan said. “The new wind turbine guidelines represent a coming together of environment, government, tribal, and industry stakeholders to design a roadmap for responsible wind energy development. NRG Systems is a proud partner in this vital environmental work.”

To Learn More…

So if you hear a soft rushing of air, it might not be a spring breeze. It’s a sigh of relief from all concerned that wind turbine siting in the future can be more beneficial, less contentious, and more cooperative than ever. You can read a statement from the Department of the Interior, the full guidelines, and a fact sheet on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife site.