Gulf turbine plan sparks wildlife debate

By Colin McDonald
San Antonio Express-News staff writer

The 300 offshore wind turbines proposed for the Gulf of Mexico near South Padre Island would rival the Tower of the Americas in height, with 280-foot blades longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747.

They would be almost twice the size of any turbine currently in the United States. The electricity produced could meet the demand of millions.

But the towers, blades and transmission lines could also mar an iconic Texas landscape, restrict fishing and impair endangered species, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

They would also stand in the middle of one of the most important migratory flyways in the Western Hemisphere, according to the American Bird Conservancy.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now working on how to evaluate this unprecedented proposal and if it should grant permits for construction.

With no model to follow for this large of a development in the Gulf of Mexico, the corps has no proven methodology for examining the potential consequences and benefits. It also has no system to monitor the project once built.

“The answer scientifically is, we don’t know because it has never been done,” said Greg Stunz, professor of marine biology at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “There are a lot of unknowns because you are dealing with the ocean.”

Race for first in the U.S.

Only two offshore wind projects in the United States have received the state and federal permits required to start construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association. One is a small demonstration project with six towers off the coast of New Jersey. The other is Cape Wind off Massachusetts with 130 towers. None has started construction.

The proposal by Austin-based Baryonyx Corp. has more than twice the number of towers and three times the electricity output of Cape Wind. It would be the first in the Gulf.

“Baryonyx is the real deal,” said Jim Suydam, spokesman for the Texas General Land Office. “They know what they are doing.”

From the beach, the blades would be easy to spot, like a city of pinwheels five miles offshore. On a clear day, they would be visible from Harlingen, the spinning blades poking above the horizon more than 20 miles away.

The Baryonyx development could produce almost twice as much power as the 800-megawatt Rio Nogales gas plant in Seguin, which CPS Energy bought this spring.

And at full power, the output from the 300 5- to 6-megawatt turbines would exceed that of each nuclear reactor at the South Texas Project plant near Bay City.

The GLO, eager for the potential revenues, has been working with and leasing state-owned submerged land off the Texas coast to wind companies for almost a decade in attempts to get the industry started.

So far, Baryonyx is the closest to building and has paid Texas more than $450,000, according to the GLO.

The state estimates that, if built, the project would generate a minimum of $338 million for the school fund during the 30-year lease.

Baryonyx is leasing four sections of Texas owned sea floor but is moving forward with only the southern two, called the Rio Grande and North Rio Grande sections, after the Navy said the northern sites near Mustang Island would interfere with its flight training based out of Kingsville.

Ian Hatton, CEO of Baryonyx, estimates putting 150 or more towers in place on each of the Rio Grande sections would cost about $8 billion.

The biggest benefactor of that construction would most likely be the 40,000-acre Port of Brownsville, the closest major port.

Manuel Ortiz, spokesman for the port, said the port’s purpose is to create jobs. Becoming a staging ground for the construction and maintenance of offshore wind farms would be welcome. The port’s main business of serving the shrimp fleet and oil and gas industry, and bulk import and export shipping, are not growing.

Such support is why Hatton chose to set up shop in Texas.

After starting and selling a company with the permits needed for a wind development off the west coast of England, which is now built and operating, Hatton chose to come to Texas.

“You got all the logistics and engineering,” he said. “Plus, you have extremely good wind resources that are as good as anything you would get in North America.”

He also added the “tremendous demand for energy” and “very, very business friendly environment.”

The unknown

Such support also is what opponents of the project fear.

With the potential for a financial windfall and a push for cleaner energy sources as global temperatures and sea levels rise, they worry their concerns will be brushed aside.

The huge blades would be turning in the middle of one of the largest migratory flyways in North America.

The towers also could close 41,000 acres of some of the best fishing grounds for shrimp and game fish in South Texas, create a hazard for passing ships and planes, and generate electromagnetic fields that could hinder the movement of marine species such as sea turtles.

The U.S. Coast Guard also has concerns about the project but would not make them public.

Audubon Texas says there is little information at this point to evaluate, explained Iliana Peña, director of conservation for the organization.

“The lack of science makes it more difficult,” she said. “We just don’t know, and that argument does not win in this state.”

In spring and fall, waves of migrating birds along the Gulf can be tracked by radar. The flocks are so large and dense they look like bands of storm clouds, said David Newstead, an environmental scientist with the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program based in Corpus Christi.

Europe already has several offshore wind projects in the North Sea and Atlantic, with close to 4,000 megawatts installed since 1991, according to AWEA, but because the avian and marine life is much different, the comparisons to the Gulf are difficult to make, Newstead explained.

In the Gulf, most of the birds are migrating and do not behave or react the same way they would when they reach their feeding and breeding grounds.

It is not known is how these migrants would react to a forest of steel and rotating blades in the Gulf.

“To just build it, I don’t think that is the way to learn about it,” Newstead said, “because I don’t think you will actually learn. It will be years, and you may see a decline and then it will take years to figure out if that is the cause.”

On land, if a bird or bat is hit by or crashes into a wind turbine, researchers can recover the carcass to study it.

That’s how scientists discovered the internal organs of bats were exploding after they flew into the vacuum created behind the moving blades.

In the Gulf, the bodies of birds and bats killed or injured by the turbines would be eaten, sink or drift away before there would be any chance for recovery.

Scientists also want to see if forcing birds and bats to fly higher or farther to avoid the turbines would be stressful to the creatures. But measuring that change would take years of study.

A similar issue is at stake with sea turtles and fish species such as sharks, which use the electromagnetic field created by the earth to navigate.

It is not know how they would react when swimming past 300 turbines, each creating its own electromagnetic field.

“There is no information to draw on because this whole thing is unprecedented,” said Kenneth J. Lohmann, a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who has studied sea turtles’ ability to navigate based on the earth’s electromagnetic fields for 20 years.

Cumulative effect

TPWD asked the Army Corps of Engineers to look at not just the Rio Grande project but the cumulative effect of the wind projects both on and offshore.

According to TPWD, 10 onshore projects are proposed between Corpus Christi and Brownsville, in addition to the five already built.

“Construction of the proposed North Rio Grande and Rio Grande offshore wind energy development sites in South Texas would result in a nearly contiguous string of wind energy developments within a 35-mile wide corridor from San Patricio County southward to Cameron County,” wrote Ross Melinchuk, deputy executive director of natural resources at TPWD.

Fishing guides would love to fish around the enormous artificial reef the turbines would create. But fishermen are not allowed near oil rigs now, and there is little hope among fishing guides they would have access to the turbines.

“I would say most of us are against it,” fishing guide Bubba Garst said. “I can’t imagine they would let us get close to them.”
Hazard to boaters?

In Massachusetts, one of the most powerful arguments against the wind turbines is the hazard they pose to boaters.

The Lower Laguna Madre Foundation, an environmental group that has opposed land wind projects based on their unknown effect on bird populations, is most likely going to be fighting the offshore wind projects from a boater safety standpoint, said Walt Kittelberger executive director and cofounder of the nonprofit, who is also a fishing guide.

“Take it from a person who has spent a lot of time in the Gulf in rough weather,” he said. “You don’t want to bump into something.”

The shrimp industry simply does not want to lose fishing grounds.

“These sites lie in the heart of the historical South Texas fishing grounds and would result in the removal of some of the most productive shrimping grounds in the Gulf of Mexico,” wrote Wilma Anderson, executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association.

Hatton is familiar with all of these arguments. He faced similar ones in Europe.

“We will have to justify the projects to those who have competing use of those waters,” he said.

For now, that judgment is up to the Army engineers.

The Galveston District aims to have the draft of its report available for public comment by next year. It plans to have the final report done in 2014. Construction could start soon after that.