Oct. 3—Three years ago, the largest electric utility in the state, Ameren Corp., pitched a brand new wind farm with hundreds of turbines in the hills of northern Missouri. But the area, just north of Kirksville, was also home to eagle nests and endangered bat colonies, the state said. Scientists warned Ameren the turbines would kill some.
Now Ameren is before state regulators hoping to raise electricity rates across Missouri, and it's run into a sticking point: The turbines at its High Prairie Renewable Energy Center have indeed killed a few bats and at least one eagle recently, forcing the company to idle the wind farm overnight for the last several months.
And consumer advocates are arguing, among other things, that Ameren shouldn't be able to fully charge customers for a facility that isn't fully running.
"Ratepayers," said Geoff Marke, chief economist with the Missouri Office of Public Counsel, which advocates for residents, "should not be responsible for any costs related to Ameren's poor managerial decisions in electing to site its wind farm where it did."
The 400-megawatt High Prairie Renewable Energy Center was completed late last year, with 175 turbines scattered across more than 60,000 acres of Schuyler and Adair counties in northern Missouri. Along with another new wind farm acquired by the company in Atchison County, in the state's northwest corner, the projects mark a combined investment of $1.2 billion and herald the beginning of the coal-dominated utility's long-anticipated shift toward renewable energy. The utility plans to invest billions more into renewable generation by 2040.
And now St. Louis-based Ameren wants to raise its electric rate revenue by 12% or about $299 million annually, in hopes of recovering the recent wind energy expenditures, plus power grid upgrades and other costs. The company says the increase would raise bills for average residential customers by $12 per month, or $144 per year.
The company first requested the rate change in April. In the months since, regulators, consumer advocates and environmentalists have scrutinized the proposal.
Some have expressed strong opposition to any increase during the coronavirus pandemic. "It is unconscionable for Ameren to even consider raising rates right now," Lora Gulley, director of community mobilization and advocacy for Generate Health, a group focused on family well-being in the St. Louis region, said on a September media call. "The demands our coalition is requesting will go a long way in relieving the mounting financial pressures for low-income families."
The Office of Public Counsel wants to see cost-benefit analyses from Ameren on some of its investments in smart meters and electric grid upgrades, to ensure that the spending is justified.
"It is a big rate increase," said Marc Poston, the OPC's director. "We just want more detail about what they're asking customers to shoulder."
'Bats will be killed'
But much of the scrutiny has also focused on the High Prairie wind farm. This spring, contractors hired by Ameren to study bird and bat deaths there found multiple carcasses of endangered Indiana bats and other protected species, including one bald eagle, near the project's turbines, according to a report from Canada-based Stantec Consulting Services. Ameren, which was already slowing its turbines sunset to sunrise, on April 19 began shutting them down altogether at night.
Marke, the economist, filed written testimony last month concerned that High Prairie, if it killed too many protected species, might have to shut down daylight operations, too.
State experts had warned that the site could encounter problems.
"This project is in one of the worst locations in Missouri for wind development from an endangered species perspective," said Kathryn Womack, a resource scientist for the state Department of Conservation, in testimony submitted in 2018. "Bats will be killed by this project. It is just a matter of how many and when will these fatalities occur."
Some argued then that Ameren should not be allowed to charge customers if the company went ahead with construction and later ran into trouble.
"Ameren Missouri could have elected to acquire wind in any number of locations that did not include the presence of endangered species maternity colonies (e.g., Indiana bats) and identified raptor nests (bald eagles)," Marke wrote in 2018 testimony. "Associated costs from this inaction should be borne by Ameren Missouri's shareholders alone."
Ameren said it worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation to plan, build and start up High Prairie. The company said it completed "numerous" wildlife studies, which became the basis of "unanimous agreement to address local conditions."
Eventually, all parties involved with High Prairie's application either signed off on the project or did not object to its final approval.
But things changed once the turbines began spinning.
"Once the facility started generating clean energy, all of us began learning new information regarding wildlife behavior," Ameren said in a statement.
Hearings start Tuesday
In the last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recorded nine fatalities of federally endangered Indiana bats at High Prairie. Those represent roughly a third of all documented deaths of the species at U.S. wind facilities, based on records going back to 2009 — giving the site a surprising track record in a short amount of time.
Still, renewable energy advocates say that Ameren can run the turbines and also limit bird and bat deaths. Wind farms can use ultrasonic sound, for instance, to deter bats. And project developers can fund specific habitat conservation initiatives to compensate for deaths that do occur.
"The industry takes the impact on fish and wildlife very seriously," said Daniel Hall, a regional director focused on electricity and transmission for the American Clean Power Association, and the former chairman of the Missouri Public Service Commission. He said a "tremendous amount" of research and analysis goes toward mitigating those effects.
Renewable energy's potential to help combat climate change provides such a boon to the environment — and, correspondingly, at-risk species — it's often worth the relatively rare wildlife casualties, said Stu Webster, the director of wildlife and federal lands issues for the power association.
Overall, he said, wind energy "is not having a demonstrable impact" on species of concern.
Ameren said nighttime operations at High Prairie will resume Oct. 31, after the conclusion of migratory and mating season for the bats.
Public hearings on Ameren's proposed rate increases are set to begin this week. The virtual hearings, coordinated by state utility regulators from the Missouri Public Service Commission, run Tuesday through Friday.
More information about the events can be found online at psc.mo.gov.
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