Birds versus windmills again: Birds win one

Long live the whooping crane and the piping plover!

A couple of major players in wind energy are tangling over the cancellation of a big project in North Dakota. Xcel Energy is pulling out of the wind farm, a step its partner, enXco said it will challenge.

The $400 million, 150-megawatt Merricourt Wind Project is supposed to be built this year in southeast North Dakota, but construction is in doubt now, after Xcel Energy announced that it's rescinded its agreement to be part of the project.

Xcel's only comments have been a prepared statement and a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In the SEC filing, it said a major factor in the decision to pullout was the "adverse impact this project could have on endangered or threatened species." Jeff Towner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said there are two species in question -- "[t]he endangered whooping crane and the threatened piping plover."

Towner recommended in the summer of 2009 that the wind farm address the threat posed to the two bird species. Towner says he told the onsite developer, enXco, to request a federal permit for the project. If the permit were granted, it would allow a certain level of bird kill or injury of the rare species at the Merricourt Wind Project. "I was hopeful that they would follow through," said Towner.

The federal regulatory process can take months, sometimes more than a year. But Towner didn't see anything until last week. That's when enXco filed a draft plan on how the company would lessen the threat to birds at the wind farm. Towner says the company has indicated it is also working on the permit request, but so far nothing has been filed.

enXco said in a news release that it is still working on the bird questions, but refused MPR's request for an interview.

For its part, Xcel Energy hinted that it's not happy with its partner's handling of the federal bird issue. In the SEC filing, the company says there exists "uncertainty in the cost and timing in mitigating" the wind farm's impact on the two rare species. That impact could be expensive.

Towner said the owners of the wind farm could face up to a year in jail or a $200,000 fine if either the whooping crane or plover were injured or killed at the wind farm without federal approvals in place. "Any company needs to be diligent that that does not occur as part of their project construction or operations," said Towner.

The troubled project has provoked a lot of reaction. The American Bird Conservancy praised Xcel Energy's pullout. The group cited government estimates that almost half a million birds die each year through collisions with wind towers.

In North Dakota, though, wind energy supporters are unhappy. A member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission says he's going to ask enXco and Xcel Energy to explain what's going on.



  1. Thank goodness the threat of the wind turbine industry to endangered species has been exposed and acted upon. I applaud the leadership exhibited by Xcel Energy.

  2. The painful, bloody slaughter of birds and bats around the world by industrial wind turbines for an industry that does not work, will likely be obsolete in 25 years, will leave the earth covered with thousands to millions of acres of rusting metal junkyards, sickens the strongest of people. We share this planet with species other than ourselves. Thank you, Xcel Energy, for having the guts to make this corageous decision.

  3. The decision to back out of this wind fiasco is a sound one. As a rule wind generating facilities are too harsh for the environment. Whether it is dead birds and bats, noise, flicker, ugliness, non sustainability, expense, danger from thrown ice, hazards to navigation or health issues wind factories are not the way to go. We still need coal,natural gas, hydro and nuclear. If we want alternatives let's look hard at solar thermal. Cheap, easy,effective and not at all harsh to the environment. A good DIY person can install one on his roof and save immediately.


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