In May 2012, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service released its final Land Based Wind Energy Guidelines, a federal set of recommendations addressing risk analysis and management in the proper siting of wind farms. Although perhaps simple in concept, the process took well over three years. I chatted with Dave Stout, Chairperson of the Federal Advisory Committee and recently retired Division Chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about the process, politics, and the long road that lead to the final version of the voluntary wind-energy siting guidelines.
The first interim guidelines the USFWS issued in 2003 were crafted entirely in house—that is, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These guidelines ultimately failed developers, however, because “they were prescriptive—that is, they explicated exactly what to do and how to do it,” Stout says. “They stated with great specificity the steps to follow, rather than the end goal.” The first version of the guidelines failed to note that there are different approaches and techniques to develop wind projects. This version of the guidelines was so disliked by the industry that by March of 2007, the Federal Advisory Committee was established to develop measures to reduce the effects of windpower projects on wildlife.
The Federal Advisory Committee was composed of a diverse team of non-government organizations (NGOs), Native American tribes, developers, and federal agency representatives. According to Stout, the meetings were “fairly informal and relaxed” and “the process was open and transparent,” although there were plenty of disagreements and controversy over issues. Some of the more memorable contestations were over items such as the voluntary nature of the guidelines (NGOs wanted mandatory guidelines and developers wanted to know they could receive a letter of assurance from the USFWS by following the guidelines), the creation of a “one size fits all” siting plan as opposed to tailoring each project by its floral and faunal trappings, and even the terminology used for all aspects of windpower development.
The guidelines were drawn to navigate the line between the ultimate goal of the wind developers—to build operating projects—and the ultimate goal of the NGOs—wildlife and habitat preservation. Both parties hold an interest in the environment. Developers want to reduce GHG-emitting sources of energy with offsets. The NGOs want to maintain habitat values for all creatures. These desires are not too divergent, though one would think so from the strong aversion the NGOs had to the guidelines’ voluntary nature. The American Bird Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, National Audubon, and Defenders of Wildlife all pushed the committee to make the guidelines federally enforceable. Most others in the Federal Advisory Committee hoped the industry would embrace the guidelines.
The final document shows a tiered process of guidelines that are descriptive, not prescriptive. The guidelines fit the needs of each wind farm and its footprint, not vice versa. Since the guidelines’ release, the USFWS Advisory Wind Energy Siting Guidelines have received international press and have even inspired other similar guidelines. For instance, the Great Lakes Offshore Wind Consortium is looking at the guidelines to inform its “promoting the efficient and expeditious, orderly and responsible evaluation of offshore wind power projects in the Great Lakes.” This document may be the first step in normalizing a process that is still and often an amalgam involving various entities, localities, agencies, rules and regulations. Hopefully, a standard arises from the guidelines to which all townships, counties, cities, states and, of course, developers can ultimately adhere.
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