Auwahi allowed to increase ‘incidental take’ of bats
Auwahi Wind Energy’s request to be allowed more accidental bat deaths at its wind farm in Kanaio was accepted by state and federal agencies, a company spokeswoman confirmed this week.
Auwahi Wind Energy owns the 21-megawatt Auwahi Wind Farm on Ulupalakua Ranch land. It sought to increase its “incidental take” of ope’ape’a, or Hawaiian hoary bats, to 140, up from the 21 bats in its original application, through 2037.
The final supplemental environmental impact statement to increase the bat deaths was accepted by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, according to the state Office of Environmental Quality Control’s The Environmental Notice published Sunday.
On the federal level, a record of decision on the final programmatic environmental impact statement for the increase in bat deaths has been prepared and was signed Sept. 3. However, Auwahi has not received a printout from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yet, said Melissa McHenry, managing director of external communication for American Electric Power, which runs the wind farm.
American Electric Power acquired the wind farm from Sempra Renewables earlier this year.
Four wind energy projects in Hawaii, including two on Maui, applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for an incidental take permit or permit amendment under a section of the Endangered Species Act, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, Megan Nagel, said on Wednesday.
The Maui projects were Auwahi and Kaheawa Wind Power II, which operates on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains.
Kaheawa wants to increase its incidental take of adult hoary bats from 11 to 38, and of nene from 30 to 44.
Nagel said the federal agency will issue separate final decisions on each of the four requests through publication in the Federal Register. The decisions have not yet been published.
McHenry said that, on the state’s end, the Board of Land and Natural Resources approved on Aug. 23 the amendments to the incidental-take license and habitat-conservation plan, and Auwahi’s supplemental environmental impact statement.
An official with the state Office of Environmental Quality Control said this week that the comment period for Kaheawa’s draft supplemental environmental impact statement for increasing its take of nene and bats is still open.
Multiple attempts to reach Kaheawa officials this week were unsuccessful.
Auwahi noted in its habitat conservation plan, which was approved in 2012 by federal and state agencies, that the risk that wind projects posed to bats in Hawaii “was largely unknown and underestimated.”
The number of accidental deaths allowed at wind facilities was based on information available at the time. Since then, technology and research methods have improved, and more bat fatalities have been observed than expected.
The incidental take permit and license that Auwahi received from the federal and state agencies in 2012 is good through 2037.
Environmentalists and wildlife officials were disappointed in the approval of the increased accidental bat deaths.
Fern Duvall of the DLNR stressed Monday that there is not enough information about the bats to decide whether “we made a wise decision or not.” Without knowing population numbers, it’s hard to say what type of impact the wind farms are having and how much of the population is in danger.
As part of Auwahi’s mitigation efforts, more bat habitats are being created to assist the species, but Duvall said that doesn’t mean those measures automatically will increase the population.
He said modifications will need to be done to the wind towers so they won’t kill bats.
And it’s not the blades striking the bats that are causing the deaths, but the “pressure gradient” created by the turning blades. The lower pressure created by the blades causes the insides of the bat to explode, he said.
Duvall said more males are killed than females because the males tend to fly to higher structures.
The Sierra Club Maui Group has issues with the takings.
“We will certainly keep an eye on actual bat take numbers and oppose any additional increase in allowed take since there are known operational changes that would reduce the take to zero or close to it,” said Rob Weltman, president of the Sierra Club Maui Group.
The Sierra Club has said that it wants to see wind farms provide managed roosting and foraging areas for bats, and expand the search area and frequency of searches for carcasses.
In addition, the Sierra Club noted that Auwahi experimented with changing turbine speeds, and fewer deaths at certain speeds were reported. The Sierra Club supports increasing cut-in speeds (when the blades start rotating and generating power) at all wind farms to 6.9 meters per second from 30 minutes before sunset to 30 minutes after sunset year round.
Auwahi has worked to reforest 130 acres of bat habitat in Puu Makua on Maui, sponsored U.S. Geological Survey bat research, conducted predator control and petrel burrow monitoring on Haleakala, and funded nene pens in the national park, the company has said.
Additional mitigation is expected with the creation of a 1,752-acre bat foraging habitat, research-level monitoring and a bat occupancy study on leeward Haleakala, the company said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.