This is an excerpt from the Third Quarter 2011 edition of the Wind Program Newsletter.

New Model Examines Cumulative Impacts of Wind Energy Development on Sensitive Species

A sage-grouse in a grassy field with its white neck plumage fluffed and brown speckled wings extended. Enlarge image

Sage-Grouse
NREL/Pix 17429

DOE's Argonne National Laboratory recently developed the prototype of a spatially explicit individual-based model for examining the cumulative impacts of wind energy development on populations and habitats of the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)—an important wildlife species that has been affected by energy development in the western United States. The two-year project, "Wind Energy Development in Critical Wildlife Habitats: Considering Cumulative Impacts and the Maintenance of Sustainable Populations," was initiated with funding from DOE's Wind and Water Power Program.

Increasing concerns over the sustainability of sage-grouse populations in the face of increasing development have led to restrictions on development in sage-grouse core areas, but an incomplete understanding of the bird's response to the development of wind farms and other structures could lead to unnecessary or ineffective restrictions. The model is intended to facilitate smart development that minimizes impact by synthesizing available information into a predictive model.

In July 2011, Argonne completed testing of a prototype model that was based on conditions within Albany County, Wyoming, an area that currently supports important populations of greater sage grouse and has high wind energy development potential. Once fully developed beyond the prototype stage, this model will allow stakeholders to assess cumulative impacts of proposed wind and other energy development on the sage-grouse early in the planning and siting process, identify appropriate mitigation strategies if necessary, and avoid or reduce potentially lengthy and costly project delays.

The sage grouse has an unusual, complex life history, including movements between different areas from season to season. The species also uses traditional strutting grounds (called leks) where males perform courtship displays.  Disruption of any portion of the annual life cycle could result in long-term impacts in a wider portion of the species range. The Argonne model incorporates the species' requirements and movements to better understand how wind energy projects could affect populations. Five major processes for seven age-sex classes are represented in the model. These processes include seasonal movements, habitat selection, condition change, reproduction, and survivorship.

Two boxes with green and black backgrounds show the difference between sage-grouse populations (represented by colored dots) in the spring and in the winter. Enlarge image

Predicted Spatial Distribution of Greater Sage-Grouse in a Portion of Albany County, Wyoming, under Baseline Conditions

Given a lack of observed data on how wind energy developments affect the sage-grouse, the model uses information regarding the impacts of other infrastructure development (such as oil and gas) as a proxy. DOE is funding other efforts to collect data on sage grouse around wind farms. These data will be used to validate the model, which will then provide valuable information to support siting decisions and minimize ecological impact. With this tool, users will be able determine the proximate cause of sage grouse population changes (e.g., changes in survivorship, reproduction, and habitat suitability), and this information could be used to help design improved mitigation strategies. The model also provides a framework that can be adapted and applied to other regions with high wind potential and species that are identified as at-risk from wind development.

Argonne plans to take the model from prototype stage to a fully functioning, user-friendly tool for land management agencies, planners, developers, and other stakeholders to evaluate the effects of wind development on this critically important wildlife species. Future work will focus on incorporating the latest information on habitat suitability, sage-grouse biology, and wind development effects.

Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, Illinois, is also working on wind turbine drivetrain reliability issues, advanced superconducting drivetrain concepts, improved methodologies for wind power forecasting, the use of wind power forecasting in power systems operations, and a visual impact risk analysis and mitigation system.

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