Horizon Wind Offsets Development Impact on Prairie Birds

KANSAS CITY, Kansas, September 25, 2008 (ENS) - Wind project developer, owner, and operator Horizon Wind Energy will offset the effects of its new wind farm in north central Kansas by investing in 20,000 acres of offsite habitat restoration to benefit grassland birds, especially the greater prairie-chicken.

Horizon Wind Energy signed the conservation investment agreement Wednesday with the Ranchland Trust of Kansas and The Nature Conservancy of Kansas.

"Horizon believes that wind energy must be developed in a responsible and progressive manner that moves towards achieving a sustainable domestic energy supply while protecting local ecological resources. We are happy to make this investment in the natural environment of the state of Kansas," said Gabriel Alonso, Horizon's chief development officer.

Owned by the the largest utility in Portugal, Energias de Portugal Renováveis, Horizon Wind is based in Houston with regional offices in New York, Oregon, California, Minnesota and Illinois, and a brand new office in Overland Park, Kansas.

The company wants to conserve the prairie ecosystem that is increasingly falling prey to development of all kinds.

Native to North America, greater prairie chickens were once abundant in tall grass prairies but are now extremely rare or extinct over much of their former range due to habitat loss.

These large members of the grouse family prefer undisturbed prairie, where in spring they engage in a mating ritual called booming. The males inflate air sacs located on the side of their necks and snap their tails to attract females. These territorial birds will defend their booming grounds.

Aside from habitat loss, the greater prairie chicken also is threatened by loss of genetic variance resulting from the isolation of populations with no natural corridors between groups, says the Nature Conservancy.

The Meridian Way Wind Farm is located in north central Kansas in Cloud County, eight miles south of Concordia. The site, which is primarily used for cattle ranching and farming wheat, alfalfa and milo, includes 38,000 acres of land at an elevation of 1,650 feet.

Horizon broke ground in April and is installing 67 Vestas wind turbines at the site.

With 201 megawatts of installed capacity, the wind farm will power more than 65,000 homes served by the Empire Electric District and Westar Energy in the Kansas region under power purchase agreements signed last year.

Before beginning construction of Meridian Way Wind Farm, Horizon invited three Kansas prairie scientists to determine the potential ecological impacts of its construction and operation, including habitat fragmentation from roads and the presence of the tall wind turbine towers.

Based upon these scientific findings, Horizon Wind Energy committed to fund a voluntary conservation program and included the cost of the ecological offsets program into the wind farm's financial model.

Brokered by Wayne Walker Conservation Consulting, the investment agreement announced Wednesday supplements funds provided by the wildlife conservation groups and state and federal agencies.

The 13,100 acres of the total conservation acreage will be devoted to permanent onservation easements, which will be held and managed by Ranchland Trust of Kansas.

According to the agreement, the Conservancy may advance loans to Ranchland Trust, if needed, to assure timely completion of habitat restoration and protection work.

"We are excited about this project, because it provides a rare opportunity to leverage significant private resources for the permanent protection of privately owned grasslands, improvement of grazing resources, and enhancement of wildlife habitat on privately owned ranch lands," said Mike Beam, executive director of Ranchland Trust of Kansas.

"The RTK Board of Directors has a passion for conserving our nation's grasslands for future generations, and this project is a big boost in our efforts to make a difference.

The Nature Conservancy's Kansas State Director Alan Pollom sees the possibility that other wind farm developers will adopt conservation as part of their overall plans, using Meridian Way as a model.

"In addition to the habitat rehabilitation and protection benefits, it also sets a solid standard for ecologically responsible wind energy development," Pollom said. "I would urge all wind developers and power purchasers to embrace the reality that concern for our environment extends well beyond the issue of air emissions."

Horizon is currently developing a portfolio of more than 10,500 megawatts of wind power in over a dozen states.

"From their earliest days in Kansas and our first conversations, Horizon was exceptionally committed to understanding the potential environmental impacts of wind turbines on wildlife," said Brad Loveless, manager of Westar Energy's biology and conservation programs.

Loveless said, "Their siting choices, the broadly beneficial conservation easements, and the ongoing cooperative research on the turbines' effects on greater prairie-chickens well reflect the high value placed on the prairie and its wildlife by the partners in the Meridian Way project."

{Photo: Male greater prairie-chicken in the mating dance called booming. (Photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy)}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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