Over the past 25 years, wind-energy conversion systems (wind turbines) have been developed in the San Gorgonio Pass, Whitewater and surrounding areas. Initially, they were a curiosity for both residents and travelers alike and didn’t attract much attention.
But as the number of turbines grew into the hundreds and then the thousands, concern arose among residents, adjacent landowners and environmental groups.
Wind power can be a viable method of producing electricity, and it is widely considered a clean, safe and reliable source of energy. However, it does have adverse effects in locations such as the San Gorgonio Pass, including the loss of developable land and danger to local wildlife.
Wind-energy companies claim that they only use a fraction of the land, leaving the rest as open space. But in essence, modern wind-energy projects involve massive industrialization of undeveloped land. The newer turbines that have been installed in recent years are large, typically 100 meters (330 feet) tall. Indeed, some developers of future projects are proposing turbines that are 125 meters (410 feet) tall.
Local homeowners and adjacent landowners are the ones immediately affected, and they are now very active in opposing any new wind-energy projects. Other opposing parties are residential developers and the city of Desert Hot Springs. The latter sees a tangible loss of developable land south of Pierson Boulevard, an area the city is considering annexing for future growth.
In addition to the impact wind-energy projects have on land, the structures cause problems in the air as well. The tips of the turbine blades reach speeds of 200 mph to 300 mph, depending on wind speed, which can harm animals.
As a result of studies in other areas, such as Altamont Pass near San Francisco, we know that wind-energy systems cause deaths among many species, particularly raptors, owls and other migratory birds. A major concern for environmental groups, including The Sierra Club, is bird and bat mortality.
Collisions with turbines, towers and transmission lines are a major factor in bird and bat deaths that has been insufficiently studied. The most recent study in the San Gorgonio Pass area was the Anderson/Neumann report, based on field work in 1997 and 1999. That was prior to many of the newer large turbines being installed.
However, The Press-Enterprise recently reported that an average of 6,670 birds are killed annually by wind-energy systems in the San Gorgonio Pass area.
The California Energy Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game are developing guidelines to protect wildlife at risk: “Statewide Guidelines for Reducing Impacts to Birds and Bats From Wind Energy Development.” The guidelines should be available within a few months.
Until these guidelines are available and are taken into consideration by energy developers, planning departments and permitting agencies, no more wind-energy developments should be built.
We must have accurate data and mitigation measures in place, followed by adequate monitoring after construction. If turbines are found to cause unacceptable levels of bird and bat mortality, they should be dismantled and removed.
The growth of the wind-energy industry is unprecedented. Currently, a 1,600-acre project that straddles the city of Palm Springs and unincorporated portions of Riverside County just south of Desert Hot Springs is in the stages of final approval. Perhaps the least environmentally friendly proposal to date is the Cabazon Ridge Project, which covers 2,400 acres south of Interstate 10 near Snow Creek Village and follows the ridgeline up to 4,000 feet on the north face of Mount San Jacinto.
This would have major effects on Snow Creek residents, including increased fire danger, impacts to wildlife habitat between the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Jacinto Mountains, and noticeable visual impacts that will be seen from afar.
While general Sierra Club policy is supportive of alternate power sources, such as wind and solar energy, we recognize that all energy resources have adverse impacts. It is, therefore, important that siting and deployment of these systems always address the specific conditions of each location and minimize any harm to nearby communities and local wildlife.
By Jeff Morgan
5 March 2007
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