Wind turbines are proving to be more of a menace than expected to opeapea — endangered Hawaiian hoary bats, the islands’ only native land mammal.
As a result, three wind energy farms are requesting increases in the amount of bats they are allowed to “take.”
In 2012, the farms received federal and state permits that allowed them to take a designated number of the bats. Two of permits were supposed to be in effect for 20 years, the third for 25. Combined, they were allowed to take 92 during those periods, but they have already exceeded that number.
Now the three wind farms —Kawailoa Wind Power on Oahu, and Auwahi Wind and Kaheawa Wind Power II on Maui — are looking to amend their existing incidental take permits to increase the amount of bats they are allowed to take. Pakini Nui Wind Farm, which has been operating since 2007 on the Big Island, is applying for a first-time permit.
Each wind energy project submitted its own take request, but if all are approved, the original limit of 92 would increase to 483.
Kawailoa received its original incidental take permit from Fish and Wildlife in December 2011 and its incidental take license from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife in January 2012. Both were supposed to last for 20 years and the project was authorized to take 60 bats within that time. Now it’s requesting permission to take an additional 162 bats through 2031.
Auwahi Wind received both its permit and license in February 2012 and was allowed to take 21 bats. The project is requesting permission to take an additional 176 through 2037. Kaheawa Wind Power II also received approval from state and federal agencies in 2012 to take 11 bats and is requesting permission to take 27 more by 2032.
Pakini Nui has been in the process of applying for a new 20-year permit since 2016. It would allow the wind farm to take 26 bats.
Environmental attorney Maxx Phillips, who represents Keep the North Shore Country, said Pakini Nui has been able to operate without a permit or license because no one has brought legal action.
While Hawaiian hoary bats are not the only flying creatures threatened by wind turbines, they are more difficult to monitor and track than endangered birds like the uau (Hawaiian petrel) and the nene (Hawaiian goose).
“Hawaiian hoary bats are more difficult than some of the (other endangered species) because it’s a lot more difficult to understand how large the populations are and what the impacts of losing X number of individual bats to wind farms, what that’s really going to do to a population in the long run,” said Dr. Loyal Mehrhoff, Endangered Species Recovery Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Unlike other bats, the opeapea don’t congregate in caves, but instead nest in trees. It’s unknown how many hoary bats are left in the islands.
In order for the wind energy projects’ proposed amendments to be approved, the Endangered Species Act requires that each submit a habitat conservation plan for approval to both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
The plans outline what measures the wind farms will take to minimize adverse effects and show that the species will be “better off with the project than without,” Phillips said.
Kawailoa, for example, is testing pre-commercial technology that uses ultrasonic sound to deter bats from flying near rotor-swept areas. Kawailoa has also been turning off the turbines during low wind speed conditions because bats are more likely to collide with structures at low wind speeds.
“We are very proud to make this contribution, the contribution of the project to the renewable energy goals that Hawaii has,” said Brita Woeck, environmental compliance manager for Kawailoa Wind. “But we want to be able to do so in a way that minimizes impacts to the environment and specifically to bats.”
The programmatic approach, which differs from the usual process of creating an environmental impact statement for each project, will result in a comprehensive document that includes information from all four wind projects’ habitat conservation plans. The impacts of the projects on the endangered species will be analyzed cumulatively, but decisions regarding the take number requested will be addressed separately.
A public scoping period began June 1 and ended July 2. Three public meetings were held in June on Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu, where concerned community members could ask questions of Fish and Wildlife, which hosted the meetings, and consultants who have been hired to represent each project.
Phillips attended the June 21 meeting at Sunset Beach Recreation Center and said 20 to 30 community members were there, including representatives from organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity and Malama Pupukea-Waimea.
Fish and Wildlife supervisory biologist Darren LeBlanc said the agency received comments from about 23 people during the scoping period.
One of the comments came from North Shore resident Chris Bruns, who suggested shutting down all wind farm turbines at night until preventive measures are put in place to protect the bats or until each project presents plans to somehow mitigate the take.
LeBlanc said all farms will continue to operate while their amended plans are under consideration since they applied for permit amendments prior to exceeding their original take numbers.
Fish and Wildlife is not concerned about the need to increase the take of Hawaiian hoary bats because the original estimates “probably weren’t correct to begin with, but they were based on what we knew at the time,” Leblanc said.
“This whole process is about following the best science,” said Holly Richards, public affairs officer for Fish and Wildlife. “So, the original permits were issued with the best available estimates and as we get more data and as our science evolves, we better understand those populations.”
Wind energy projects contribute to Hawaii’s goal of operating on 100 percent clean energy by 2045. According to the 2017 Renewable Portfolio Standard Status Report listed in a document by the Hawaii State Energy Office, wind energy contributes 21 percent to the state’s total renewable energy portfolio and makes up 5.8 percent of Hawaii’s overall energy use.
“It’s a conservation conundrum,” said Phillips. “We want green energy, but are we willing to do that at the extinction of our only native land mammal?”
Fish and Wildlife officials anticipate the draft of the programmatic environmental statement and each wind energy project’s habitat conservation plan will be available for public review and commentary by the end of this year.
LeBlanc and Richards said they anticipate that it will be an additional six months after that before permitting decisions are made.
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