How much is a little brown bat worth? According to Green Mountain Power’s calculation, about $1 million a year.
The utility has asked for a state permit to kill four of the endangered creatures a year at its 21-turbine Lowell wind project. GMP says if it has to follow all the protections needed to spare every bat from getting thrashed by the turbine blades, it would cost the utility $4 million a year in reduced power output.
In a sign that endangered bats may be the next point of contention in the ongoing debate over ridgeline wind in Vermont, wind opponents asked for a hearing on GMP’s request for a permit to kill up to seven bats a year.
The company says it faces economic hardship if it’s forced to curtail operations to fully protect the creatures.
“If we were to have to ensure there’s absolutely no risk at all to the bats, we would have to stop all the generation at night for about six months,” said spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure.
Schnure said the permit the company wants would still protect the rare bats.
“With the permit, and with the understanding that there is a minimal number of bats that could be affected, we can continue to generate cost-effective wind power. We can operate the plant in a way that really minimizes the risk to the endangered bats,” she said.
The bat population in the Northeast has been devastated by a fungal disease called White Nose Syndrome. It’s wiped out vast numbers of the flying mammals in their wintering habitat: caves and mines throughout the region. The devastation has led the state to place the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat, the eastern small-footed bat, and the tri-colored bat on the endangered species list.
GMP’s application would allow it to “take” or kill four of the little brown bats, and one each of the other three species, for a total of seven bats a year.
The draft permit from the Agency of Natural Resources says turbines on forested ridges in the Northeast are especially deadly for the bats. It says brown bat fatalities have been observed at 19 of the 20 wind projects studied in the region.
Some environmentalists argue that since bat populations are already precarious, they should not face more threat from wind projects. Steve Wright is with Ridgeprotecters, a group that questions ridgeline wind development. He argues the projects harm wildlife and their habitat.
“I think it’s entirely inappropriate with regard to renewable energy and ecosystem protection to open the box to killing endangered species,” he said. “That to me makes no sense.”
Wright asked the state to hold a hearing on the GMP permit. He wants to see more data that backs up GMP’s claim that it faces a $4 million loss in generation if it fully protects the little brown bats.
“I mean just checking off a box and claiming economic hardship based on a 23 percent reduction in production, it feels like to me there should be more analysis there,” he said.
Catherine Gjessing, general counsel for the Fish and Wildlife Department, said the draft permit includes a requirement that GMP pay $18,000 a year to a state project that will protect maternal bat colonies.
“So those are the types of mitigation, the sort of conditions, that play into the weighing, the balancing of economic hardship and impact to the species,” she said.
Fish and Wildlife biologists say that – besides White Nose Syndrome – the disturbance to these maternal colonies is the greatest threat to endangered bats.
The state will hold a hearing Thursday in Lowell on the endangered species takings permit.