Resources for Understanding the Effects of Wind Energy Development

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As the Nation strives to lessen its dependence on foreign oil, domestic energy production has increased dramatically. This is especially true for renewable energy sources such as wind: from 2007 to 2009, for example, wind energy development increased 341 percent in Wyoming (Fig. 1, Science tab), and it continues on that trajectory today. However, the effects of renewable energy development on wildlife and habitats remain largely undocumented.

Growth in number of wind turbines in Wyoming, 1996–2009, based on USGS data.

To understand interactions between energy development and ecosystems, natural resource managers need to know the locations of development sites. Most energy developments on public lands, such as those for oil and gas, are tracked with geographic information systems (GIS). However, the locations of wind energy development sites are currently tracked only by individual energy development companies and have not been available to the public. The U.S. Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center (FORT) is changing this by providing the first statewide GIS database of all the wind turbine sites in Wyoming.

In the western United States, many wind energy sites are developed on publicly leased land, most of it administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Because the BLM has a multiple-use mandate, it must manage these lands for wildlife conservation as well as energy development and other uses. BLM requires an inventory of wind energy sites to make informed resource management decisions. Responding to this need, FORT GIS specialists Michael O’Donnell and Tammy Fancher developed the Wyoming wind turbine data set (Fig. 2) as part of a science project to develop spatially explicit seasonal distribution models for sage-grouse in Wyoming. The BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and others can use the wind turbine data to evaluate the effects of wind energy sites in Wyoming on the seasonal use of habitat by Greater Sage-grouse.

Additionally, these data will be incorporated into planning tools for the Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative and other wildlife- and habitat-related projects underway at FORT. Specifically, FORT investigators will use the data in models to quantify direct disturbances (e.g., loss of vegetation, infrastructure development, density of disturbance) of the landscape related to wind energy as well as indirect effects on wildlife and vegetation (e.g., increased site visits for mechanical maintenance, fragmentation of the landscape, effects on migration patterns and habitat use). Scientists can use the wind turbine locations to discern whether wind energy development affects wildlife use and quantify the magnitude and relative impact of any such effects.

A map of wind power classes for Wyoming and Colorado.

Orange to purple areas represent poor to superb wind power potential, respectively. Green patches represent known wind turbine locations. (source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory; USGS images). Figure 2 (left): Wind power classes for 50 meters above-ground elevation in Wyoming (777 turbines). Figure 3 (right): Wind power classes for 50 meters above-ground elevation in Colorado (910 turbines).

The wind turbine data set includes 777 locations of wind turbines in Wyoming as of August 1, 2009. The locations are derived from August 2009 true-color aerial photographs available through the National Agriculture Imagery Program and have a positional accuracy of approximately ±5 meters. For each wind turbine, the data set also provides information about its megawatt potential, size and manufacturing details, land ownership, power owners and users, and operational status.

The Wyoming wind turbine GIS data will allow scientists to analyze and understand the effects of wind energy development on natural resources. The data will also complement ongoing assessments of oil and gas development on public lands. In addition to the Wyoming data set, similar data sets are being developed by FORT for Colorado (Fig. 3) and New Mexico in association with a USGS regional project on energy and the environment in the Rocky Mountain area. These data provide invaluable information for both researchers and managers working on energy and natural resource issues.