Sheffield Wind files for bat permit, conducts study

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, 2009. Credit: Marvin Moriarty/USFWSU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo of

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, 2009. Photo by Marvin Moriarty/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

White-nose syndrome spreads west

The mysterious fungus that has decimated bat populations in the Northeast continues to spread south and into the Midwest with damaging results, says a University of Vermont bat expert.

C. William Kilpatrick, a professor of zoology and natural history in the department of biology, say there is “not much good news” in the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungus first identified in 2006 in a New York cave that has since caused the die-off of 5 million to 7 million bats in the Northeast.

Kilpatrick says the syndrome has spread south into West Virginia and into northern Alabama and Tennessee, and as far west as Ohio and Indiana.

According to Kilpatrick, the fungus attacks bats during their hibernation in caves and is probably reaching the southern end of its range, since it is a “cold-loving fungus.” But there appears to be little to stop its spread west.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything that will keep it out of the middle portion of the U.S.,” he said.

The two bat populations primarily affected by white-nose syndrome, named for the signifying appearance on the faces and ears of affected bats, are the little brown bat and the long-eared bat. The little brown bat species was Vermont’s most widespread until the syndrome struck, he says.

There are six cave bat species in all in Vermont, according to Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Darling. He has estimated the disease has all but wiped out the little brown bat and long-eared bat populations, causing 75 percent to 99 percent mortality in the six main hibernacula (caves) where the bats overwinter.

Both are now listed as endangered species by the state. Darling has described their decline as a “swift and dramatic decimation of an entire suite of species.”

Scientists have discovered that the fungus exists in Europe but bats there seem to be unaffected by it, possibly because they have been exposed to it for a longer time and have developed an immunity, explains Kilpatrick. White nose appears to sicken bats while they are in caves because their immunity is suppressed during hibernation, he said.

Whether U.S. bats might develop resistance is “too soon to tell,” Kilpatrick says. Use of fungicides in caves does not seem to have helped to halt the spread, he adds.

Researchers were initially concerned that scientists exploring bat die-offs in caves might unintentionally be spreading the disease. But it is likely the disease is carried by infected bats dispersing into new caves or when bats congregate in the fall and mate, he says.

The disease so far has not seemed to greatly hurt another species in Vermont, big brown bats, and there is some evidence that they are filling in where the two other species have disappeared. Big brown bats are cave bats but also will overwinter in houses and barns and other buildings, which may limit their susceptibility to the disease.

Kilpatrick says the $1.8 million the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is allocating for research into white nose is a very small amount. West Nile virus has killed just 43 people, he said, yet receives 50 times the funding as research into the bat die-off, whose consequences to agriculture and insect populations are likely to have far more impact.

“If this was affecting humans directly instead of indirectly, probably the research would be a hundred times greater,” he says.

A Vermont wind project is applying for the first-ever Endangered and Threatened Species Taking Permit for bats from the Agency of Natural Resources.

Sheffield Wind, whose 16-turbine, 40-megawatt utility scale project in the Northeast Kingdom went on line last fall, has filed for the permit because a fungus has decimated Vermont bat populations and placed them on the endangered or threatened species list. “White-nose syndrome” has caused mortality of more than 90 percent of the population of little brown and long-eared bats in the state.

Based on national studies, the rotating blades of wind turbines can pose a threat to bats and any “taking” of endangered species requires a permit from the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.

“This is the first time it’s come up as I understand,” said ANR Secretary Deb Markowitz, who said she has been briefed by her staff on the permit request and will likely issue her decision before the end of August.

Markowitz said she anticipated other wind projects in the pipeline, such as Kingdom Community Wind, a controversial 21-turbine, 63 megawatt project being built in Lowell by Green Mountain Power, will also be required to file a bat taking permit as well.

Markowitz said the permit involves an interesting “cross-section of law, science and policy.” She explained that her options in issuing the permit involve actions such as calling for a variety of operational curbs to mitigate any impact on bats and requesting studies, though she does have the authority to deny a permit.

The Sheffield application is unusual because the wind project is already operating and because parent company First Wind, based in Boston, is voluntarily conducting an extensive study on the impact of turbines on bats under a memo of understanding with the agency.

The results of that study, which was begun in April and will run for at least two years under the auspices of highly regarded Bat Conservation International, will enhance understanding of bat behavior and wind turbine projects in Vermont, Markowitz said.

Josh Bagnato, Sheffield Wind’s environmental manager, said the $150,000 study was designed in close cooperation with ANR biologist Scott Darling, who is an expert on bats and white-nose syndrome.

“I would call it groundbreaking,” he said. “It’s pretty innovative.”

White-nose syndrome is a fungus that has infected bat hibernacula (caves) in Vermont and killed an estimated 5 million to 7 million bats in the Northeast. The little brown bat was the most populous and most affected of six species known in Vermont to be placed on the endangered species list. In all, five of the state’s cave-dwelling bats are now listed as either endangered or threatened.

According to Darling, there is some mystery why bats, which use sophisticated echo-location to find insect prey, are susceptible to turbine blades.

“That’s always been the fascinating part,” he says, “why something that can see the thickness of a monofilament fishing line would run into a rotor,” he said.

The study by First Wind involves daily survey of the base of the turbines, with correlations to daily temperatures, wind speed and turbine speed, and even placing out carcasses of any bats to see if scavengers may be removing dead bats and causing undercounting. Bagnato said five people are involved and so far, “to be honest, they’re not finding much,” he said.

According to Bagnato, three dead bats have been found, but none of the three were endangered.

Darling explained that previous wind projects in Vermont were not large enough to impact bats.

“This is the first operating wind facility that has turbines that are tall enough to kill bats,” he said. Sheffield’s wind towers are approximately 420 feet high, according to First Wind. The only other wind project operating, in Searsburg in southern Vermont, has 11 turbines that are only 120 feet high. A dozen projects in Vermont are in the planning stages. http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2012/05/24/fourteen-industrial-wind-farms-planned-in-vermont-despite-intense-local-opposition/)

To alleviate risk to bats, First Wind is proposing in its permit to voluntarily agree to curb nighttime turbine use in low wind periods under around 9 miles per hour, which is when bats are most at risk, according to Darling.

“Turbine curtailment would begin on April 1 and end on October 31 annually. Little Brown Bats hibernate during the winters, but emerge from hibernation in April – May and then enter hibernation again in September – October,” the permit states.

First Wind argues, however, that if the curtailment wind speed is set too high, it will impact the economics of the project by as much as 25 percent.

“A 25% loss in revenue for the life of the project presents an economic hardship to the project that would make it uneconomical to operate over the long-term,” the application states. It also argued that the certificate of public good to generate power received from the Vermont Public Service Board requires the wind project to meet “the demand for present and future service” and if it does not meet that requirement it faces being decommissioned.

The $100 million Sheffield project provides renewable power to Washington Electric Cooperative in East Montpelier, the Burlington Electric Department, and the Vermont Electric Cooperative in Johnson.

Darling said that there is some evidence, which further research at First Wind will help expand, that curtailing turbine use in low wind when bats are flying can cut mortality by 50 percent to 90 percent.

“That’s a huge benefit,” he said.

Markowitz said while the taking permit on bats is a first, she receives several taking permit applications a month, often for small limited areas where endangered plants might be affected, say in a power line power corridor or development.

She said she will seek an advisory recommendation on the bat permit from the Endangered Species Committee, a citizen panel with scientific expertise attached to her agency, and also receive a recommendation from her staff before issuing a decision.

Markowitz noted future wind project takings cases will be done under a new process authorized in the so-called “fee bill” passed by the Legislature this year. That new process allows the agency to set not only mitigating stipulations on a project’s operation but to impose fees that will allow the agency to do further study on turbine blade impacts on bats and avian species.

An example would be if a project was built close to a bat hibernating cave, then a more extensive study might be required, she said.

Markowitz said the takings permit would be for a two to three year period, which would allow further review and possible adjustments down the road as more data is collected both in state and nationally at other sites.

Andrew Nemethy

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26 Comments on "Sheffield Wind files for bat permit, conducts study"

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Dan Rhodes
3 years 6 months ago

The “expert” quoted in this article appears to attribute bat mortality solely to coming in contact with turbine blades, yet other studies which examined the carcasses of dead bats found beneath wind turbines, concluded those bats had most-likely died from internal hemorrhaging caused by large pressure differentials created along whirling turbine blades. Their internal organs appeared to have literally exploded as a result of flying close to spinning turbine blades — without any signs of trauma to suggest that they came into contact with the blades; other studies have also suggested that sharp pressure gradients can confuse or distort bats’… Read more »

Randy Koch
3 years 6 months ago

I am delighted that the State and the corporation, Deb and Josh, are deeply concerned and working hand in hand to craft a sensitive Bat Slicing Permit. I would direct their attention toward the work of chef Alexandre Duclos (www.dietforahungrynation.com/cookingwithbat). It would be a shame to dice up these delicious creatures only to add them to the already overburdened waste stream. Instead, they should be diverted to the food chain by putting them on the menu of the school lunch program. Here we would capture the true spirit of public-private, win-win-win projects. As a WEC ratepayer I say: Go for… Read more »

MJ Farmer
3 years 6 months ago

I toured a wind farm in New York State and they said they do not operate at night because of bats. This would be an easy answer, do not operate at night. However, First Wind admits 25% reduction in revenues if wind speed curtailment at night is too high. Why did they not thnk of this BEFORE they built these wind turbines?

Annette Smith
3 years 6 months ago

Good idea. Then people could sleep, too.

ANR’s plan is to charge a fee for each bat killed, and that will provide funding for someone to get bats out of attics where homeowners might kill them instead. It’s really quite incredible, almost placing an incentive so that the more bats die, the more money the state gets. This is the new approach to environmental protection in Vermont under Gov. Shumlin.

If we were smart we would not be risking killing any more bats, and we certainly shouldn’t be issuing permits to kill them.

Kathy Leonard
3 years 6 months ago

The same goes for eagle “takes” – as public lands are becoming available for RE development.

Who knew utilities routinely apply for permits to kill eagles and bats for our right to charge our lives.

http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/jul/09/eagle-kill-permits-stoke-constroversy/

Avram Patt
3 years 6 months ago

Some of the comments here are to be expected. There is now a lot of research, done or underway, about bats and wind turbines, about why this is a problem at a small number of locations and not at others, and about what can be done to mitigate. Also data on bird and bat mortality per gigawatt of electricity generated for fossil fuel, nuclear and wind generation. (i.e. Where does our power come from now, and what is the impact of that compared to wind?) An easy web search. It is of course to be expected that some would haul… Read more »

Randy Koch
3 years 6 months ago

And no comment is more to be expected than one from Avram Patt, minimizing and relativizing, instructing and reproving, delivering the wayward from their ignorance.

Avram Patt
3 years 6 months ago

Actually, relativizing is exactly the point.thank you for recognizing that. Energy generation and use has negative impact. All of it and any of it. So when people think their electricity comes from a wall socket, they need to be pushed to ask themselves where their power actually comes from, and what the, relative, impacts of those sources are. The relative impact of industrial huge visible wind turbines on ridgelines, turbines that cause maybe a dozen non-endangered bats to die annually, is many multiple of times less bad than where power would need to come from without those huge industrial turbines.… Read more »

Mary Hartman
3 years 6 months ago

“maybe a dozen non-endangered bats to die annually, is many multiple of times less bad than where power would need to come from without those huge industrial turbines.” It’s not a dozen that die, but hundreds. Bats are a keystone species. When you destroy bat populations you cause an entire ecosystem to collapse. I believe enough research has been done to determine that wind energy systems pose a threat to bat populations. Since the threat is less blade strike and more barotrauma, the only real mitigation is to not run the turbines when this keystone species is out and about,… Read more »

Eric Rosenbloom
3 years 6 months ago

Avram Patt smugly states the obvious, that “energy generation and use has negative impact”. The issue with wind, however, is how much positive impact it has. Other than tax avoidance for its investors, that positive impact seems to be minimal — certainly nowhere near enough to justify its obvious negative impacts.

3 years 5 months ago

MJ,

They DID think of it, but decide to play dumb, until now.

3 years 5 months ago

Avram, The US already has more than enough generating capacity. It should concentrate on energy efficiency. Energy consumption, Btu/yr, per capita is 2-3 times European levels. A much more economically-viable and environmentally-beneficial measure to reduce CO2 would be increased energy efficiency. A 60% reduction in Btu/$ of GDP is entirely possible with existing technologies. Such a reduction would merely place the US on par with most European nations. http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/71771/energy-efficiency-first-renewables-later It would be much wiser, and more economical, to shift subsidies away from expensive renewables, that produce just a little of expensive, variable, intermittent energy, towards increased EE. Those renewables would… Read more »

3 years 6 months ago

“According to Bagnato, three dead bats have been found, but none of the three were endangered.”

Only the most ingenuous among the public would rely on such statements. As professor Trebilcock* once said about these kind of biased studies: “… tantamount to students being invited to grade their own exam papers.”

* Michael Trebilcock, professor of law and economics at the University of Toronto, Ontario.

More about the cover up here: http://savetheeaglesinternational.org/

Dan Rhodes
3 years 6 months ago

I’ve checked back a half day later after my 6AM post, and I’m encouraged to find a glimmer of rationality has persisted in this discussion. While I’m most certainly “pro-bats” — I’m also not anti-wind turbine. What promped my 1st post was the article gave the appearance that both the biologist & the Wind co. bureaucrat were blissfully unaware of relevant research elsewhere, which disputes or greatly amplifies their statements. Certainly, it would be wrong to conclude that these turbines weren’t a threat because of the low incidence of dead bats found nearby. That’s just as likely explained by there… Read more »

Avram Patt
3 years 6 months ago

Because I was trying to keep my earlier comment relatively brief, I did not also say that I agree with you about the research over the past 3 years or so that seems to indicate that the cause of bat deaths, where they occur, is pressure, not collision.

Rob Pforzheimer
3 years 6 months ago

No doubt the ANR is more concerned with First Wind’s profits than saving the few remaining bats. First Wind and Josh Bagnato and even the ANR can’t be trusted to reveal actual bat and bird mortality. There is a known peregrine falcon nesting sites on Wheeler Mtn less than 2 miles from the Sheffield turbines. Last week hikers were not permitted on Wheeler Mtn because they might disturb the falcons. The 28 acre vertical killing field created by the 16 – 158 foot turbines blades spinning at up to 200 miles per hour are a far greater threat to raptors… Read more »

Steve Merrill
3 years 6 months ago

It’s NOT the mercury in the bat’s diet, it’s the “syndrome” that’s killing them? I asked Leif Richardson at UVM’s entomolgy dept. a few years ago that if the bats drink surface water and eat bugs that are laced with mercury from the coal plants somke stacks, unscrubbed as Bush cancelled the “New Source Review” and Big Coal is still fighting the EPA (burdensome regulations), would that NOT affect them like it’s doing to our fish and amphibians? I never got an answer and they don’t test the bats nor bugs for mercury, a potent neurotoxin that has NO “safe”… Read more »

Justin Turco
3 years 6 months ago

Not that I would know…but it would seem easy to avoid something that doesn’t move if you could echo locate. However, avoiding something that moves 180 mph might be a different story. Then there is the fact that it’s the pressure change that kills them. Not being struck by the blade. One study proposes that half of the bats that are fatally injured fly out of the shadow of the turbine and die offsite. I believe it. What I’d like to know: At what wind speed do bats decide to suspend flight operations? This should be the speed above which… Read more »

Steve Wright
3 years 6 months ago

A primary concern of the effects of advancing climate change is destabilization of ecosystems and resulting effects on human enterprise. One of the founding principles of the Endangered Species Act is to protect the integrity of ecosystems by keeping all its parts. Government authorized “takings” of Endangered Species–as in certain bats–only advances destabilization of ecosystems. Blowing up mountains in order to save them. Now there’s an energy policy of which George Orwell would be proud. Will the ANR Secretary continue to play this game of madness and issue the permit, or will she stand for integrity of ecosystems, the supposed… Read more »

3 years 6 months ago

Avram, The blades are the size of a 747 wing or longer. When they slice through the air at about 200 mph, they create vortices that will flip a small airplane. That is the reason there is an FAA 2-mile distance requirement between take offs, after a 747 takes off. For the Airbus 380, the distance is even greater. Dan Rhodes is right. The bird’s do not need to impact the blade. They can be 100 ft or more away and still have their lungs explode, because of pressure differentials. Wind energy on ridge lines is expensive, about 10 c/kWh,… Read more »

Carol Maroni
3 years 6 months ago

Let’s stop killing little creatures endangered or not and destroying ecosystems in the name of clean energy. Large wind developments on ridgelines don’t reduce the need for fossil fuels and won’t until we have battery systems sufficient to store the energy provided. So lets call a spade a spade and realize that our VT energy policy under the Shumlin administration is a fast track to natural distruction for the benefit of big business. Can’t we regain some sanity and increase financial incentives to homeowners for small scale local renewables. Now that would be a mitigation plan worthy of our Vermont… Read more »

Joseph Gainza
3 years 6 months ago

Very interesting discussion. It points to a larger issue about which we rearly if ever hear. We share this planet with other species who have as much right to be alive as we do. Yet our “civilization” operates as if only human life is worth considering. We will endanger other species and the entire planet for CONVENIENCES, not survival. How do we structure our lives, individually and collectively so that all living beings are able to survive and thrive (I know there are some asking “do you include disease viruses?” Yes). When do we recognize that we are a part… Read more »

3 years 6 months ago

We live on route 5 in Sutton, and need every one of our bats because we live across the road from a swamp and have way too many mosquitoes and the bats take care of those. I want to remind you we knew there would be a problem with bats and other birds when the ANR and other Vermont State offices were going to allow these wind farms. Do not let the permit go through, and fine them for every bat that is killed. We are only less than a mile from the nearest turbine as the bat flies. We… Read more »

Gerold Noyes
3 years 6 months ago

I’m a pilot and in a former life aeronautical engineer. FAA separation distance between large jets is due to jet engine and wing turbulence that can lead to loss of control by smaller planes who follow larger ones. Airfoil pressure effects are limited to a few inches from the wing. No lungs will ‘explode’ – bat or otherwise by coming within a 100 feet of a wing or turbine blade, which is just a rotating wing. As for coal plants not being hazardous to bats, thats absurd. Does Mary Hartman work for AEP? How about the habitat distruction of entire… Read more »

3 years 5 months ago

Gerold,

The huge von Karrmann vortices off the ends of big air plane wings and wind turbine blades could not exist without big pressure differentials.

These vortices are strong enough to flip a small plane, if too close, and certainly strong enough to violently flip bats and birds.

That is why so many are found near wind turbines, because they were “knocked” unconscious. Direct impact, visible as puffs of feathers, is not required.

Zach Leonard
3 years 5 months ago

Bats are our last natural line of defense against the incoming mosquito borne diseases like West Nile virus. They are also a highly valuable species to our fragile ecosystems. Endangered or not, these animals should not be killed with state granted permits by for profit wind factories. The studies have been done already on all the other projects in this country and abroad. Industrial wind turbines kill birds and bats. New fee-based studies will not do anything but allow for two to three years of killing the last of the bats that still remain today. The Agency of Natural Resources… Read more »

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