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Wind Power Could Affect Critical Texas Wetlands

Texas Tech researcher David Haukos warns that loss of playas could have a lasting effect on wildlife, plants and people.

Written by Norman Martin

Featured Expert
David Haukos

David Haukos is an adjunct wildlife professor in the Department of Natural Resources Management in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources. Haukos also serves as a regional migratory bird management specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Texas Tech University Partners in $28 Million Department of Energy Project

Protecting Our Precious Playas

According to the State Energy Conservation Office, Texas is currently the U.S.’ top wind producer and home to three of the five largest wind farms in the nation.

According to the State Energy Conservation Office, Texas is currently the U.S.’ top wind producer and home to three of the five largest wind farms in the nation.

Despite the attraction of wind as a nearly pollution-free power source, a Texas Tech University wildlife ecologist cautions that a tsunami of modern wind turbines dotting the South Plains of Texas could have as yet unknown ecological consequences on critical wetlands known as playas.

And there are plenty of playas on the Texas High Plains and in Eastern New Mexico – approximately 22,000, in fact. Indeed, it’s the largest concentration in the world. Playas act as natural water storage sites, providing irrigation water and seasonally recharging the Ogallala, the nation’s largest aquifer.

“We don’t have any information specific to this region about the effect of wind farm construction on wildlife, and that’s a problem because the Panhandle and South Plains of Texas are going to be major players in the wind industry,” said David Haukos, an adjunct wildlife ecology professor in Texas Tech’s Department of Natural Resources Management.

Texas, once the oil capital of North America, is rapidly turning into the capital of wind power. After breakneck growth the last three years, the state has reached the point that more than 3 percent of its electricity, enough to supply power to one million homes, comes from wind turbines.

But wind power is just gaining a toe hold here. Up to this point transmission capacity has limited the number of wind farms. But with the recent approval by the Texas Utilities Commission for construction of new transmission lines, the number of wind turbines is expected to increase dramatically in the next five to 10 years.

“As the technology related to wind farms improves, we’re going to see bigger and bigger wind turbines,” Haukos said. “When you start putting these large structures on the landscape, we really don’t know how the animals and wildlife are going to respond.”

Other wildlife researchers have found that in European wetland settings, birds have tended to avoid wind turbines. And avoidance of playas is not the impact anyone wants since these miniature wetlands are directly related to the success of wildlife survival and associated conservation efforts.

“Playas are much like an ecological oasis for wildlife,” said Haukos, who serves as a regional migratory bird specialist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Estimates suggest that some two million waterfowl winter on Texas playas, making it the second largest wintering site in interior North America for ducks and geese. Furthermore, wildlife supported by playa habitats has spawned a thriving lease-hunting industry in the region, while simultaneously providing a popular draw for money-spending birdwatchers and nature photographers, as well.

The Texas High Plains and Eastern New Mexico has the largest concentration of playas in the world - approximately 22,000.

The Texas High Plains and Eastern New Mexico has the largest concentration of playas in the world – approximately 22,000. Click to Enlarge.

On the Southern High Plains specifically, playas only occupy about 2 percent of the land area. They’re normally small; 90 percent of them are less than 30 acres in size. But these small, scattered wetlands form a system that supports most of the life in the area whether it’s plants, animals or people.

“Playas are keystone ecosystems,” Haukos said. “They’re the eco-systems that all the other eco-systems depend upon in this region. Loss of the playas would have a great effect on wildlife, plants and probably people in this part of the world.”

Today, there is no regulation that prohibits constructing a wind farm next to a playa on private land. There are some voluntary guidelines from Texas Parks and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife for wind companies to consider, but none are mandatory.

Separately, several Texas Tech studies are underway examining wind farm construction, including their effect on bats and lesser prairie chickens. In addition, wind farm companies have been coming to the Lubbock campus looking for setback guideline recommendations, as well as bird surveys and migratory patterns.

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11 Responses to “Wind Power Could Affect Critical Texas Wetlands”

  1. Josiah Field Says:

    That is the misguided point that is blocking construction of wind turbines in California…. I want to know the side by side cost, how many birds will be killed by the blades of the wind turbines etc vs how many will be wiped out by out of control global warming? Some damage to some parts of the system (not like we are not damaging playas already with other construction) is far better then a universal collapse.

  2. Curtis D. Goss Says:

    While I am happy to see wind-generated electrical power becoming a reality, I am also concerned about its effect on the environment. We need to do everything possible to see that the impact on wildlife fauna and flora is minimalized.

  3. kakistocraphobe Says:

    Finally, someone is thinking about the effects of these alternative energy sources.

    The wind on the windward side of a farm will be greater than the wind on the leeward side. It has to be, or no energy could be extracted from the wind.

    While no person in Texas would mind if the wind were lessened, the effect of ever more wind farms, and the largely unknown effect, is that as the wind is attenuated, the weather will change in some unanticipated manner.

    The temperature in an area after a solar farm is operating will be less than the temperature before. It has to be, or no energy could be extracted from sunlight. While no person in Texas would mind if it were a little cooler in the summer, the effect of large solar energy farms will be that as the temperature cools a bit, the weather will change in some unanticipated manner. And what happens if the temperature cools and then a major volcanic eruption occurs, like the one 60,000 years overdue in Yellowstone.

    Likewise tapping the tides will change currents and thus the weather.

    When oil was found in Pennsylvania, it was predicted that there was enough to last man forever. We now know that is not true. When we take solar capture and wind capture to their illogical and ridiculous extremes, we will find that the weather has changed, and that indeed, man will have caused global climate change. And it will be blamed on petrochemicals and no person will be able to disprove those statements.

    The nice thing about petrochemical fuels is that we have enough experience with them, and with nuclear power, to be able to anticipate the effect.

    Global climate change will be affected, but will not be controllable by man, until we can control sun spots and volcanos.


  4. Aaron Smith Says:

    Has there been a reduction in harvested upland game birds and water fowl in the areas (counties) that wind farms have been erected. This information could be easily attained through Texas Parks and Wildlife.

  5. Don Crumbley Says:

    Having just completed driving from San Angelo, TX to Amarillo, TX and return, as well as flying back to CA over the 4th of July Holiday, the growth of wind farms and oil wells in the West Texas Area in the last couple of years is stunning to observe from the land and the air. At the rate of growth that both industries are proceeding, there is little doubt that there will be an ecological impact on the wild life fauna and flora, with all of the bull dozed criss-crossing of access roads to each of these installed units, as well as connecting distibution pipelines and electrical grids. The landscape of West Texas and its heritage is rapidly changing and we have to realize at what cost?

  6. Otismyman Says:

    I agree with kakistocraphobe: “Global climate change will be affected, but will not be controllable by man, until we can control sun spots and volcanos.”

    When will all the no-growth-flat-eath-enviro-eco-marxists wake up? Or better yet, climb from their Y2K bunkers and take a breath of air? Really, and it’s OK to exhale too!

  7. Brad Altemeyer Says:

    impacts are a good question to ask, and to explore, it is often the unintended consequences of actions that have the largest surprises- Lubbock has had large windmills around for a long time though- in the mid 1980′s when I was a student we used to bicycle past one out toward the old Reese Air Force Base- lot’s of fun when the T-38′s would fly right over your head (at a safe height). Normal birds might not have too much to fear- the main one folks worry about in California is the Giant Condor with it’s 7 or 8ft wingspan and very few mating pairs- so big they even sometimes get electrocuted when the wings complete the circuit on high power lines.
    Texas has many potential wind power sites- the Caprock area is certainly one of the great ones- but I like small scale- right at the house, and pluged into the local network like the Skystream -combine that with some solar panels of the newer designs and we will gradually make a big dent in the amount of electricity generated by coal in the USA- all we need is the soon to arrive legislation wiping out any blocks to homeowners to upgrade to solar panels on the roof and windmills- currently many deed restrictions and home owners associations are against these- while they are writing that up- I hope they include a nationwide allowance for air drying clothes -clothing lines are banned in some communities- but would be a significant change in energy consumption if used.

  8. Bill Temple Says:

    It is nice to see that TT researchers are looking at the pros and cons of the wind energy industry. Wind energy is not a perfect solution to our energy needs: it is very expensive, it is periodic, and it has enviornmental consequences. We shouldn’t let the “manmade global warming” farce dictate bad energy and enviornmental policy.

  9. Trey Meiron Says:

    As an Engineer that has worked in the electric utility for nearly thirty years, with expereince in wind and nuclear I do not recognize wind as a good electrical generator much less viable. If CO2 is truly your reason for building wind farms then you must ask yourself will a wind farm stop the production of electricicty from coal, or oil or gas. The answer is NO. Not a single power plant has been shutdown in Texas nor the rest of the world despite the large numbers of wind farms in service. WHY you ask? Varibility of wind strength and the intermittency of wind, makes it completely unreliable, therefore other plants must stay on line to support an electric grid. An electric grid I might add that is stressed by the very same wind generators. Capacity Factor which is the ratio of actual power versus rated power the nuclear plants in Texas are operating at greater than 95% while wind operates at less tha 25%. The addition of transmission lines will not improve this number at all. During the peak demand record setting output of this summer the capacity factor of wind was around 1% while the nuclear plants were over 100%.

  10. Randy Erickson Says:

    I think much, much more should be done to bring real life examples to life. Sooner or later, someone is going to figure out how to store WP energy. That is the key with this. Non renewable energy sources are just that. Non renewable, not matter how many years we have left of a certain one. Oil goes up and down at will, and we have little control over the prices. Natural gas pretty much goes up and down with oil, so that one is not great either. That leaves coal, that leaves traces of mercury in the air. I am not in favor of wind over these other sources so much for the “green” unless you count money. Over the course, I bet we can figure out this will actually save money as it gets developed.

  11. Department of Energy Grant Awarded to Study Environmental Effects of Wind Power :: Texas Tech Today Says:

    [...] Wind Power Could Affect Critical Texas Wetlands [...]

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