Prospects for a proposed wind energy farm in Eastern North Carolina remain uncertain as long as naturalists and environmentalists continue to oppose the project because of its proximity to a wild bird refuge.
Representatives from the 49-turbine Pantego Wind Project, proposed for Beaufort County, told The News & Observer this morning they are conducting a study costing several hundred thousand dollars. The study is intended to determine the risk of building wind turbines, measuring nearly 500 feet tall, to visiting tundra swans and other migrating waterfowl that fly in the area to forage during the winter.
But Duke University ecology professor Dan Richter, who also attended the meeting, expressed doubt that the study will resolve anything. Richter said he doubted the independence and reliability of bird counts financed by a company with a vested interest in the outcome.
But no matter how the bird counts come out, Richter said, it won't be clear if the migrating birds could fly into the whirling blades or if they would avoid the area altogether in their search for food. Richter, along with state and federal wildlife officials, worry the risk of putting wind turbines near the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge doesn't justify the benefits of a wind farm.
"This is a particular case of a wind project in a bird flyway," Richter said during the meeting. "It's really tragic that (a) big project could risk not only birds, but also risk the perception of wind energy itself."
The 80-megawatt Pantego project is proposed by Invenergy, a Chicago wind developer with 26 projects in this country. The company is also exploring a wind farm up to 300 megawatts in Camden and Currituck counties.
The project ultimately depends on approval from state and federal regulators, including the N.C. Utilities Commission. What's unclear is how many bird carcasses a month officials could tolerate from mid-air impacts with 150-foot long blades, and how the public would react.
More than 100,000 tundra swans come to North Carolina each winter, according to some estimates. The bird population is thriving and they are legal to hunt, said David Groberg, Invenergy's vice president of business development.
The Pantego study in Beaufort County, conducted by two biologists who work in shfits, will be completed in May or June, said Jack Godshall, Invenergy's business development manager. Godshall acknowledged the company might have to do more bird impact studies to alleviate concerns.
Godshall noted that the main concern with tundra swans, which can weigh up to 23 pounds, is that the wind turbines will have a scarecrow effect and frighten the birds, which would prevent them from foraging on local farms where the wind turbines are located.
The Pantego project will have minimal impact on wetlands and no impact on endangered species, Grober said.
"We take these wildlife issues very seriously," Grober said. "We think we made a good choice (of location) but we're not blind to the fact that others think we might not have."