Good News for Birds as Everglades Wind Farm Scrapped

And now, a Thanksgivukkah miracle for the birds:

This week, Wind Capital Group announced that it will not move forward with the Sugarland Wind Farm, a project that would have placed 124 Statue of Liberty-sized wind turbines in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

A consultant for Wind Capital Group cited to "market issues" and the lack of economic incentives for renewable energy in Florida as the reason. In a way, this is a shame. Renewable energy is the future and we want to see it flourish in our state. As Florida faces the specter of sea level rise and saltwater intrusion from climate change, reducing reliance on fossil fuels that increase greenhouse gases is an absolute must.

Now I am going to level with you. From the day we heard about this project, Audubon Florida had serious concerns about its location, which posed unreasonable risks to Everglades birds. It is a relief the project is no longer moving forward.

As an environmentalist, weighing in on the "wind farm in the Everglades" issue had been pretty awkward from the start. People love to brandish the fact that environmentalists promote green energy in theory but then oppose specific proposals, and thus are impossible to please. In fact, this very proposal gained fame on the Daily Show, which mocked United Waterfowlers of Florida Executive Director Newton Cook's concerns of its impact to birds and wildlife. If you are looking for a quick laugh and a superficial story, it is pretty entertaining.

But in reality, successfully implementing clean energy is a bit more nuanced. Renewable energy is absolutely necessary and it has to be the right kind in the right place.

Sugarland Wind Farm's location could not have been more wrong. The project would have spanned a landscape of over 10,000 acres sandwiched between Lake Okeechobee, the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, and the Stormwater Treatment Areas- areas world renowned for their diversity and abundance of birds and wildlife. Did I mention it would have been in the vicinity of multi-billion dollar future Everglades restoration projects and in a heavy traffic area for migratory birds on the Southern Atlantic Flyway?

The Sugarland Wind Project would have posed an unreasonable risk to the birds. Audubon Florida scientists evaluated the project's risk and came to the conclusion that the danger to birds was really grave. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service also had serious questions and concerns about the project, especially in regards to impacts to federally listed endangered species such as the Everglade Snail Kite and Wood Stork. There were species of birds with very low population numbers documented in the area, where even one death could potentially lead to considerable harm on the species' long term survival.

Okay, what if you prefer your bird stuffed rather than soaring? Even then, bird "takes" under federal law do not come cheap. Only last week, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at two Wyoming wind farms, and will pay a fine of $1 million.

So where do we go from here?

First, there needs to be a better process for balancing the development of wind projects in Florida with their risk to birds and other wildlife. The scary thing is that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection actually approved the Sugarland Wind Farm permit a few weeks ago. It was done without notifying the public beforehand, despite a variety of environmental and public interest groups, including Audubon Florida, opposing the proposal from the outset.

There needs to be better collaboration between the state and the federal agencies in evaluating these proposals. In 2012, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service developed a set of "Land Based Wind Energy Guidelines", which should be followed in a collaborative approach to find the best location for wind projects.

And, Florida should develop better incentives for renewable energy in general. Just because this proposal turned out to be a turkey does not mean that other green energy projects should suffer. Legislators need to look at new ways to promote development of these projects in the future.

Finally, coping with climate change in Florida not only requires reductions in the amount of greenhouse gases through clean energy, but also demands innovative ways to adapt to changes that we know are likely to occur, such as Everglades restoration.