Juice: Catching the Wind and Much More

By Published On: July 29, 2005

“You’re moving to crazy California from lovely Vermont?” the beefy motorcyclist asked me at a gas station on a windswept bluff in western Nebraska. “Why?” he asked in bewilderment. He and his partner were heading home to Alberta from a vacation in Nashville, Tennessee. I was moving back to the Bay Area after spending a grueling year studying environmental law in rural Vermont. I mumbled to these hardy bikers from the frigid Canadian prairies that I couldn’t handle the subzero-temperature New England winters. But it wasn’t just Vermont’s interminably long, bitter-cold winters that had driven me back across country to the Golden State. It was also the provincial mindset exemplified by many Vermonters’ fervent opposition to wind energy development in the Green Mountain State. I was appalled by the NIMBY attitude, even among some environmentalists, who railed against allowing wind turbines to despoil their scenic ridgelines and vistas. In a state that relies on the decrepit and increasingly hazardous Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to supply 25 percent of its electric power, opposing wind farms struck me as unconscionable and short-sighted. How could environmentalists who are deeply concerned about global warming line up against the most cost-competitive renewable energy resource that generates zero greenhouse gas emissions or radioactive waste? Driving past newly installed whirling wind turbines along Interstate 80 in western Wyoming, I looked forward to coming home to California, where wind farms have been a welcome part of the landscape for more than two decades. Yet our state has paid a price for innovation. California wind energy generators are vilified by some critics as cold-hearted bird killers who put corporate profits above the survival of imperiled species. The Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area?the birthplace of commercial wind power and North America’s largest wind farm, with more than 5,000 turbines?is the poster child for the wind industry’s shortfalls. A generation ago, Altamont became infamous after a Hells Angel bludgeoned a rock fan to death at a Rolling Stones concert there in December 1969. Today Altamont is infamous for the deaths of tens of thousands of hawks, eagles, owls, and migrating songbirds in collisions with wind turbines reviled by bird lovers as “Cuisinarts of the air.” The image of America’s majestic national bird, the bald eagle, and other federally protected raptors and songbirds being pulverized by wind turbines has become a huge public relations problem for the wind industry. Some of those vigilant Vermont environmentalists cited Altamont bird kills as fueling their opposition to wind power development in their state. “This is the industry’s nightmare. It’s caused headaches for developers everywhere regardless of the local situation,” concedes Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association. While wind farms in other locations have not killed nearly as many birds, Altamont’s reputation has created a misperception that wind turbines everywhere kill large numbers of birds, Rader says. “Because of Altamont, siting requirements are much higher everywhere.” Bird kills have not been a significant problem at the state’s four other wind resource areas?Tehachapi, San Gorgonio, Solano, and Pacheco Pass. However, through a mishap of geography, the Altamont wind turbines were sited directly in the path of a major migratory bird route and next to the Diablo Range, home to the highest concentration of golden eagles in the world. With enthusiasm for wind power running high in the early 1980s and state and federal tax credits fueling new wind projects, neither wind producers nor regulators paused to consider whether this clean renewable energy source posed any environmental hazards. We now know better. Just five years after the Altamont wind turbines came on line, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the high number of protected raptors killed at Altamont was unacceptable and violated federal wildlife protection laws, which carry stiff fines. Yet neither federal nor state wildlife officials have ever fined any Altamont wind operators for killing protected birds. In 1998, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors finally imposed a moratorium on developing new wind energy capacity at Altamont until avian mortality is sharply reduced. No one knows how many birds have been killed by Altamont wind turbines because the area is so large that only a small fraction of bird carcasses can be found before they are consumed by predators. A year ago, the California Energy Commission released a landmark report based on four years of field research that estimated that Altamont wind turbines have killed 17,000 to 26,000 eagles, hawks, and owls since the Altamont wind farm began operating. The report recommended that older wind turbines at Altamont be repowered or replaced with fewer, larger turbines clustered in areas with few birds. This new generation of turbines more efficiently captures wind energy, yielding greater output and revenues for wind companies. They also are far less lethal to birds because the towers are raised high above avian flight pathways and have larger, more slowly turning blades that are more visible to birds. Also recommended were removing problem turbines known to kill birds and shutting down all Altamont turbines during winter months when peak power is not needed. Repowering older turbines and implementing these measures could reduce bird kills at Altamont by 50 percent in the first three years and by 85 percent within six years, according to the report. Two new wind energy projects?Buena Vista in neighboring Contra Costa County and FPL Energy’s High Winds project in Solano Pass?have installed larger turbines and are testing various mitigation measures and monitoring bird collisions. It all boils down to economics. While wind companies are replacing older turbines as they break down, they argue that it is simply not economical for them to repower turbines that are still running well and earning profits. “Nobody wants to repower right now because they?d lose money,” Rader said. It costs nearly as much to repower older turbines as to build new wind projects?about $1 million/MW, she said. One reason for the industry’s foot-dragging is the so-called California fix that Southern California Edison successfully lobbied Congress to include in the federal tax production incentive for wind energy. The amendment requires companies that repower their wind projects to renegotiate their power supply contracts with utilities at potentially lower rates. The California fix is partly to blame for Altamont wind producers reneging on their 1998 pledge to the Alameda County supervisors that they would repower the entire Altamont wind area. “Basically, it puts us at their mercy in terms of how much utilities want to pay for wind power,” Rader said. She said the California Public Utilities Commission doesn’t pressure utilities to make it more lucrative for wind companies to repower. Alternatively, state regulators could designate a portion of the public-goods charge on utility bills to repower wind farms, she suggested. Wind industry officials fiercely dispute the CEC reports’ findings and avian mortality estimates as inflammatory and unscientific. They have called on the Energy Commission to sponsor an independent scientific review of the data and methodology. Wind turbines, after all, kill only a fraction of the tens of millions of birds killed nationwide each year by communication towers, oil and wastewater pits, power lines, and pesticides, they argue. The industry is reluctant to invest in expensive untested mitigation measures such as winter shutdowns and repowering when there’s no hard evidence that they will reduce bird kills, Rader said. Permit conditions for about 3,000 Altamont wind turbines, which the Alameda County supervisors adopted on July 7, require that Altamont wind producers complete the repowering within 13 years. The supervisors rejected imposing a shorter time line for repowering and other measures that environmentalists, biologists, and California attorney general Bill Lockyer advocated to achieve an immediate 50 percent reduction in raptor deaths at Altamont. Wind producers contended that the stricter permit conditions would place too great a financial burden on them and force them to shut down wind energy production at Altamont. County planners estimated that it would cost half a billion dollars to repower the entire Altamont wind farm. Environmentalists countered that Altamont wind producers have reaped a $53 million windfall profit from higher power prices in the wake of California’s energy crisis. They chastised the wind companies for claiming financial hardship while withholding their financial records from the supervisors and the public. In the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ chambers this summer, I heard echoes of the same concerns about wind power that Vermont environmentalists had raised on the other side of the Continental Divide. But this time it didn’t sound like NIMBY complaints. For instance, Julia Levin of the National Audubon Society explained, “We are strong supporters of renewable energy, but it has to be done in a clean way. Altamont is not clean, and it’s not renewable.”

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