We wonder how a recent $1 million in fines and penalties levied against Duke Energy Renewables for killing migratory birds, including 14 golden eagles, with its wind turbines in Wyoming will affect wind projects in Nevada.

Though the Justice Department has for years aggressively pursued cases against oil and gas production firms for violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, this is the first ever criminal enforcement at a wind project.

In March, a golden eagle was found dead at the Spring Valley wind farm east of Ely, additionally the turbines there have killed a number of other birds and bats. Recently three snow geese, a rarity in Nevada, were found dead there. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has taken no action yet against the wind farm’s owner Pattern Energy, but it is believed to be one of 18 active investigations of bird deaths at wind farms.

Duke Energy Renewables still has in the works an 87-turbine wind farm east of Searchlight. The prospects of additional million-dollar criminal assessments at a facility near Lake Mohave, home to bald and golden eagles, should rightfully dampen the company’s ardor for the project. That would come on top of the fact the $12 billion wind production tax credit is set to expire at the end of the year with no current discussion of renewal. Also, Duke has yet to line up a buyer for the power the wind farm would produce and has said that the project will not go forward without such a buyer being lined up.

In a press release, the Department of Justice stated: “Under a plea agreement with the government, the company (Duke) was sentenced to pay fines, restitution and community service totaling $1 million and was placed on probation for five years, during which it must implement an environmental compliance plan aimed at preventing bird deaths at the company’s four commercial wind projects in the state.  The company is also required to apply for an Eagle Take Permit which, if granted, will provide a framework for minimizing and mitigating the deaths of golden eagles at the wind projects.”

A 2009 study by Fish and Wildlife estimated wind turbines kill 440,000 birds annually.

In April, attorneys filed in federal court a lawsuit on behalf of Searchlight residents accusing former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of acting in “a manner that is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law” when he granted permission for construction of a wind farm east of Searchlight on 19,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land.

The suit alleges the Final Environmental Impact Statement, on which Salazar based his approval, was written by consultants for Searchlight Wind Energy, which is owned by Duke Energy. The suit says the FEIS is a one-sided and an incomplete portrait of the project’s adverse environmental impacts.
Another Searchlight deterrent might be the potential for litigation with nearby landowners. Though the Interior Department found no negative impact on property values due to wind farms, a report this year by

Nevada Policy Research Institute found studies by real estate appraisers that conclude properties within two to three miles of wind turbines had values decline up to nearly 60 percent — with the decreased value being “tantamount to an inverse condemnation, or regulatory taking of private property rights.”

We wonder — and we think more Nevadans should more seriously contemplate — whether Nevada’s pristine desert and snow-capped mountains need to be dotted with thousands of noisy turbines, knocking eagles out of the sky, topped with constantly blinking red lights, penciling out only after massive taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies and doing little, if anything, to save the planet from global warming.

Windmills have been used for centuries to mill grain and pump water, perhaps there is a role for wind turbines in providing electricity — in the right place with adequate safeguards. -TM