When it comes to wind in Colorado, the High Country isn't exactly the place to look for development, but it is a place that looks toward renewable energy.
That said, the Colorado Renewables and Conservation Collaborative, a group of conservation organizations and wind industry officials, have created a set of best management practices that are friendly to both business and wildlife.
In 2008, The Nature Conservancy and four other conservation organizations worked with 10 renewable energy companies to explore how to ensure wind farms and nature can coexist through practices that are "business viable and conservation credible," said William Burnidge, grasslands program director for The Nature Conservancy. The group had outside input from the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Xcel Energy.
"They had to be practical for the developer either financially or operationally and from a conservation standpoint, they had to result in meaningful outcomes for wildlife," Burnidge said.
It took two-and-a-half years to arrive at these good-faith, voluntary standards that encourage developers to minimize and mitigate their impacts. The group's only legal action was to write into the Public Utilities Commission guidelines the rule that "requires good-faith effort to minimize and mitigate impacts," Burnidge said, which the best management practices guide.
The group opted for standards instead of mandates because "The political appetite didn't exist to create a regulatory framework," he said.
"I have a high degree of confidence that the good faith standard we established will have a significant impact," Burnidge said, highlighting that developers must consult with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, and that agency wants to make sure wildlife risks are addressed. So does business, as it gives lenders confidence companies won't "have train wrecks over impacts to wildlife," Burnidge said. "There's a strong business case for why developers would want to do this."
Such guidelines could also help grow the wind business.
"The greater certainty project developers have, the greater the likelihood of the project's success," said Craig Cox of Interwest Energy Alliance. "'Certainty' includes policy certainty (will federal tax credits remain in place past the end of this year?), financial certainty (which depends in many respects on federal policy certainty) and certainty in siting and permitting projects. With the best management practices in place, developers can have greater certainty that their projects will not be derailed by unexpected opposition from wildlife or conservation advocates."
According to Burnidge, the group has paved the way for other states to follow suit. Currently, New Mexico has no best management practices for wind development, but vested individuals there are working on a similar model to what was put in place in Colorado. Texas and Nebraska have also indicated their interest in doing the same.
It's a point of pride for Burnidge and his conservation and industry colleagues.
"We always hoped this would be a good model that can be exported," he said.
The best management practices address species and habitat proven to be most affected by wind development - and that development is largely focused on the eastern plains of Colorado, where wind development potential is high due both to wind viability and ease of access.
Because of those factors, the chances of building on the Continental Divide, where winds are highest, isn't likely.
"There are technical challenges as well as the politics of building in wilderness areas or in areas that are part of Colorado's aesthetic identity," Burnidge said. "The Continental Divide is a windy, windy place, but the harsh conditions, the altitude - those things create technical challenges for wind power development in comparison to places that are still really windy."
Cox noted wind development along the Continental Divide is also unlikely because of "the thin air density (and) inaccessibility to transmission lines."
Nonetheless, renewable energy is important to the state because of the focus on carbon footprints.
"What we've done should give people in the mountains the comfort that (wind development) is wildlife-friendly and it's clean and green at the same time," Burnidge said. "The benefits of renewable energy are coming at a much lower price to the state's wildlife heritage. Nobody wants to benefit from something and then find out later that it's something that has negative impacts."
The group spent significant time homing in on the scientific framework of species that are affected, how and why.
"We wanted to have a list of species and systems that have a strong scientific nexus with wind power development," Burnidge said. "We didn't want to be speculative or deal with impacts that were marginal."
The lesser prairie chicken was at the top of the list, being a candidate species for endangered species listing. The burrowing owl, greater prairie chicken, mountain plover, playas, rare plants, sharp-tailed grouse - and habitats like wetlands and their fragmentation - were all considered.
So, too, were bats and birds like raptors.
It's not a comprehensive list, Burnidge admits, but a comprehensive list would be extensive and prohibitive. So, he said, it's not perfect, but "we've done the best job possible to create this ... framework going forward."
The group will continue to meet, review new scientific findings and industry observations, and revise as necessary going forward.
Around the table, discussions were both amiable and tense, Burnidge said. They met every six weeks with 20 to 30 people at the meetings. After gaining trust among each other and forming the scientific basis on which they would work, the group learned from each other and both sides compromised.
"It was critical we had that trust and good faith in each other or I don't think we would have gotten through those difficult discussions," Burnidge said.
Learn more about best management practices in the wind industry online at http://bit.ly/xUMqfU