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Looking out for feathered friends

With permit in hand, AWA Goodhue can continue moving forward with its plans for a 78-megawatt wind farm in Goodhue County.

The wind development company was granted approval in June of an amended site permit for the wind farm, but the official 90-page document was not released until early this week because of delays from the state government shutdown.

"AWA Goodhue is pleased to have received both the certificate of need and the site permit for the project," company officials said in a statement. "The project is prepared to meet the provisions within the order and to start construction before the end of the year."

Even though AWA Goodhue was given the go-ahead from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, it came with some conditions.

The amendments to the permit include requiring the wind company to attempt to eliminate shadow flicker from the wind turbines and to create an avian and bat protection plan that will address mitigation strategies.

Jeff Worrell, executive director of the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, said anything that flies is going to be susceptible to a strike, but there are two important things to consider when trying to reduce bird mortality from wind turbines -- design and placement.

"The evidence thus far shows that those two things in tandem can greatly reduce the bird strikes," Worrell said.

He also said wind companies are already getting smarter about their developments. Older wind turbine models had shorter blades and had to spin quickly to create a usable amount of energy. Much like a standard ceiling fan, when the turbines spun fast enough they were difficult for birds to recognize and death rates were higher.

But now more common are turbines with longer blades, allowing them to move more safely.

"They're moving much slower and they can actually be seen by a flying bird," Worrell explained, adding that the designs of the turbines need to evolve further.

Scott Mehus, education and eagle research director at the National Eagle Center, agreed that wind energy can be created while still thinking about the birds.

"We all want to reduce CO2 emissions, but we have to be smart about how we're doing that," Mehus said. "The key is talking about being proactive."

With AWA Goodhue's project footprint being located within the Mississippi River Valley flyway, the turbines could pose a threat to everything from songbirds to bats to bald eagles. Worrell said the threats are reduced when wind companies work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"I've got to believe there's nobody at the power company that wants to see a dead eagle on the ground," Worrell added. "They're people too."

In terms of songbirds, Worrell pointed out that much larger numbers die from collisions with buildings or cars than die from wind turbines. And that's not all.

"Feral cats have killed more small birds than wind turbines have by far," he said, advising that cat owners keep their pets indoors. "When it goes out, it kills Tweety."

Concerned citizen Kristi Rosenquist has been following the AWA Goodhue Wind project and is very worried about what will happen to the wildlife in the area, including several eagles whose nests she's spotted.

Rosenquist said she understands the mortality of birds that comes from cars, buildings and cats, but sees the situation differently than Worrell does.

"I would have to say a car and a building actually have some benefit to society as a whole, whereas a wind turbine has none," Rosenquist said. "It's simply an abuse to taxpayers and ratepayers. You're already scamming the American public."