MONTEZUMA HILLS — An electricity-generating wind farm in the Montezuma Hills of eastern Solano County will become the first wind farm in the nation to receive a federal permit allowing for the deaths of some golden eagles.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday announced it will issue the permit. Golden eagles are protected by the Endangered Species Act and wind energy companies can face criminal charges for killing them.
Shiloh IV is owned by EDF Renewable Energy and is one of several wind farms in the Montezuma Hills. Its 50 white turbines are about 400 feet tall from the ground to the top of an upturned blade. Eagles can be killed by spinning blades and by electrocution.
The permit will allow up to five golden eagle deaths over five years at the 3,500-acre wind farm without federal penalties. EDF Renewable Energy will take such steps as retrofitting 133 power poles to avoid electrocuting eagles. It must monitor all turbines monthly for eagle deaths.
“We can’t solve the problem of eagle mortality at wind farms overnight, but this common-sense solution merits the support of all who advocate for the long-term conservation of eagles,” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a press release.
Shiloh IV is part of Solano County’s Montezuma Hills Wind Resource Area. The area contains hundreds of turbines owned by various companies, as well as by the Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District.
The Napa-Solano Audubon Society has commended Shiloh IV for seeking the golden eagle permit. But group member Robin Leong also expressed concerns in a Nov. 29, 2013, letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noting that this first golden eagle permit would set a precedent.
Among other things, Leong criticized what he called a flawed, “piecemeal” approach to Solano County’s Montezuma Hills Wind Resource Area. He asked Fish and Wildlife Service to expand its analysis and permit to the entire wind area, if not all wind turbine areas in the region.
Until the agency addresses all wind resource eagle deaths, it cannot achieve its obligations under the Eagle Protection Act to conserve eagle populations, he wrote.
The Fish and Wildlife Service responded in April that the Napa-Solano Audubon Society request goes beyond the scope of the analysis done for the Shiloh IV permit. But, the agency said, it will continue to encourage other wind project owners in the Montezuma Hills to apply for golden eagle permits.
Leong also noted that EDF Renewable Energy will work with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to retrofit 133 power poles, but that these poles are 140 miles away from Shiloh IV. Napa-Solano Audubon Society believes the pole retrofits should take place in Solano County, unless no PG&E poles in the county need retrofitting, he wrote.
The Fish and Wildlife Service responded that doing the retrofits in another area will still help the local eagle population. The agency is focused on the entire area eagle population and the identified site has repeated eagle fatalities, the agency said in its written response.
“Poles could be retrofit in Solano County; however, there are far fewer nests in that area, and the benefits to eagles are expected to be lower,” the response said. “We will continue to work with the owners of the Solano County utility poles, encouraging them to retrofit those poles.”
Leong couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.
Michael Hutchins of the American Bird Conservancy told The Associated Press that the five-year permit for Shiloh IV is reasonable. But, he said, the rapid expansion of wind energy has gotten ahead of science and regulations to protect birds and raptors.
“Is it really green energy if it’s going to kill hundreds of thousands of birds or bats each year?” he said. “The whole system needs a much harder look.”
The federal government has offered the five-year permits since 2009 to wind companies. Marie Strassburger, a migratory bird specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said getting one is a lengthy process.
EDF Renewable Energy kicked off its $300 million Shiloh IV project with a ceremony in September 2012. The project involved replacing 235 smaller, lattice wind turbines installed in 1989 with 50 bigger, modern turbines. Despite having far fewer turbines, Shiloh IV can generate 10 times the electricity of the old version, enough to power 40,000 average homes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.