Prior to October 2015, Ann-Marie McLaughlin said her 36-acre property in Calhan, Colorado, was teeming with prairie dogs. However, that all changed when the Golden West Wind Energy Center became fully operational last October.
The Golden West Wind Energy Center, also located in Calhan, consists of 145 453-foot tall industrial wind turbines and a 29-mile above-ground transmission line -- all owned by NextEra Energy Resources.
“The prairie dogs around here were very abundant,” McLaughlin said. “We had probably 200 on our property. When they turned the turbines on, the very next morning the prairie dogs were totally gone.”
Additionally, McLaughlin said there are no more coyotes or burrowing owls, which she and her family loved to watch. There are no more predators in the area, she said.
In their place, McLaughlin said her property is now overrun with cottontail and jackrabbits. “I have watched what has happened in my little ecosystem here; and overnight, everything changed,” she said.
Steve Forrest, the Rockies and Plains program coordinator for Defenders of Wildlife, said he has studied prairies dogs for 30 years and their comings and goings in eastern Colorado is common, often due to plague. There is a constant, variable level of plague at any given time; and, once in a while, there is an outbreak that wipes out a colony, he said.
Most recently, a large plague outbreak occurred in Baca County, Colorado, in early spring 2015, but Forrest said an outbreak could pop up anywhere. When that happens, various species of rodents, like squirrels, mice, rats and prairies dogs are significantly impacted, he said.
“When a plague outbreak like that happens, those rodent species are very susceptible and die off, while other species, like rabbits and coyotes typically handle it well,” Forrest said. Add to that the wet spring that occurred, and the eastern plains end up with tall grasses and weeds, which make for ideal feeding and hiding places for rabbits, he said. The rabbits likely moved in because the prairie dogs left, he said.
“The burrowing owls left because the prairie dogs left,” Forrest said. That is not surprising since the owls prey on the prairie dogs, he said. The coyotes likely left because the prairie dogs left, but also because of the increase in human activity related to the construction and maintenance of the turbines and transmission lines, Forrest said.
The wind farm itself is probably not the cause of a complete loss of a prairie dog colony, he said. Prairie dogs are pretty robust and not terribly bothered by the noise and activity of wind development, he said.
Although the Defenders of Wildlife organization has a group that studies renewable energy and its impacts on wildlife, Forrest said they have not studied the impacts of wind turbines on animals like prairie dogs or coyotes because they focus more broadly on imperiled species, like sage grouse. Additionally, he said he is not aware of any complaints similar to the aforementioned missing animal patterns in Calhan.
While it is unknown if prairie dogs are directly affected by wind turbines, studies show that other species are influenced. According to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative 2009 report, “The State of the Birds,” the potential for biologically significant impacts continues to be disconcerting, as the populations of various species have begun to overlap, with proposed wind energy development. “Energy development has significant negative effects on birds in North America, including habitat loss, reduction in habitat quality, direct mortality and disruption,” the report states.
According to an article written by Erin F. Baerwald, Genevieve H. D’Amours, Brandon J. Klug and Robert M.R. Barclay and published in the magazine “Current Biology” in 2008, barotrauma is tissue damage to internal air-containing structures, like the lungs, caused by a rapid or excessive pressure change.
The following is quoted in the article:
“The decompression hypothesis proposes that bats are killed by barotrauma caused by rapid air-reduction near moving turbine blades. We report here the first evidence that barotrauma is the cause of death in a high proportion of bats found at wind energy facilities. We found that 90 percent of bat fatalities involved internal haemorrhaging [sic] consistent with barotrauma, and that direct contact with turbine blades only accounted for about half of the fatalities.”
McLaughlin said she has felt physical effects that she cannot attribute to anything other than the turbines, including dizzy spells and swollen lymph nodes. “I am seriously considering moving because of this,” she said. “If it has affected the ecosystem like this, what effect is it having on us?”
| || ||
Mountain View Electric Association held its 75th annual meeting June 2. The member-owned electric co-operative has been providing electricity to the rural parts of the Pikes Peak region ever since 249 rural residents came together in 1941 to use the federal Rural Electrification Act to string power lines from Colorado Springs to Limon. Today, about 48,400 homes and businesses are served by the co-operative utility.
Families representing about 200 co-op memberships attended the meeting at Falcon High School. The event included dinner, activities for children, demonstrations about electrical power and the business meeting.
All customers of the utility, which serves Falcon, Monument, Black Forest and the plains areas to the east to Limon, are member-owners of the co-operative; and allowed to attend the annual membership meetings to vote on issues facing the utility.
Errol Hertneky and B.D. “Bud” Paddock were re-elected to three-year terms on the board. This year marked Paddock's 45th year on the board of directors. Both candidates were unopposed.
Upward rate pressure
Joe Martin, board president, told the members that MVEA continues to face pressure to increase rates because of increased costs of generating electricity for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, the wholesale power supplier for many co-operative utilities in the region. “Regulation from state and federal governments, the war on coal -- those are just some of several things that create upward pressure on rates and a price increase,” Martin said. Energy production costs increased about 5 to 6 percent over the last year, he said.
A cost of service study was conducted to determine which types of customers generated what levels of profit or loss for the utility, and whether there should be changes to the rate structure to improve parity among the different rate classes. “We decided we should strive to have a minimum of 5.7 percent rate of return, and each class needed a rate increase to make this happen,” Martin said. “In April, a rate increase went into effect; and, by June, everyone should have received at least one bill with the new rates.” Residential customers received a 3.6 percent rate increase. Irrigation received a 10 percent increase, and municipal water and outdoor lighting customers also received larger increases.
Capital credit checks to members continue
The capital credit rebate checks that many MVEA customers receive as member shareholders of the utility were discussed. “The board continues to feel that capital credit retirement is a key component of being a co-operative,” Martin said. “You should know that not all co-ops retire capital credits. We do. And we've been told by outside sources that we have an aggressive and robust retirement cycle, and we're proud of that.”
The board decided to stay with a hybrid method of determining which members would receive capital credits. Eighty percent of the rebate amount for the year would be split among members who were on the system from 1999 to 2000, and 20 percent for those who were members in 2013. “We also voted for a total payment of almost $4 million; which, if memory serves me right, is the largest since I've been on the board,” Martin said.
EPA clean power plan on hold
Jim Heron, chief executive officer, gave an update on the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which the utility and Tri-State Generating has been closely following. “This was a mammoth plan and would have a devastating impact on you, the customer,” Heron said. The plan would try to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by the year 2030. “This was the most ambitious climate-related initiative taken by the EPA to this point, and the Supreme Court stayed the plan until litigation is complete. That means the plan is on hold,” he said.
Scholarships and other awards given
College scholarship recipients and essay contest winners were recognized. About $14,000 in scholarships were awarded to high school seniors throughout the service area. Essay contest winners will represent MVEA at the National Rural Electric Youth Tour in Washington, D.C.
The 2016 essay contest will be accepting entries through November 18. For information about the essay contest and the new school year's scholarship program, visit the MVEA website at http://mvea.coop.
(Click photo to see the caption, if any.)