It is often joked that the remote and rugged North Coast area is usually years behind the rest of the state in keeping up with telecommunications, technology and culture.
But when it comes to clean and environmentally friendly energy sources, Humboldt County may be ground zero for a wave of innovative and alternative energy projects already being studied.
A new wind energy proposal that is in the early phases of studies is proposing to construct 30-35 wind-powered, electricity-generating turbines along several miles of ridgeline south of Ferndale that would supply 65 to 70 megawatts of electrical power.
The Bear River Wind Power project is being researched by Shell Wind Energy, a subsidiary of the international heavyweight Shell corporation.
Ferndale resident and longtime cattleman Joe Russ is among the landowners who hope to lease to Shell Wind Energy some of the approximately 80,000 acres of partially forested ranching and cattle grazing lands owned among 11 families.
As a lifelong rancher, Russ joked that he has spent his life cursing the wind.
“We might as well put it to work,” Russ said.
And given the timber industry’s slowdown in recent years, Russ said the partners in the project are hoping to get some help from the county’s abundant coastal winds to help pay their bills by leasing their lands to Shell Wind Energy.
Although he isn’t certain how it will shake out, Russ is optimistic.
“If everything works out it should be pretty productive, not only for ranchers, but also for the community and will certainly be good for the energy production,” Russ said.
The project is being pitched during a time when the state has identified renewable energy sources as a high priority.
Last month, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. announced that it had taken the first steps toward developing its own source of renewable power in the area and has begun a study to look into a project to harness wave energy off Humboldt and Mendocino counties’ coasts.
In permits the company has already applied for with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, PG&E’s “WaveConnect” project aims to provide as much as 40 megawatts of electrical power.
But PG&E’s wave-energy project isn’t the first pitched for the North Coast’s wave-abundant waters.
In February last year, San Diego-based DG Energy Solutions, which owns DG Fairhaven Power’s biomass power plant on the Samoa Peninsula, proposed a combined biomass-, wind- and wave-energy project near Fairhaven.
The Fairhaven Tri-Renewable Energy Park project proposed to augment the company’s existing 18-megawatt power plant facility with 20 megawatts of wind- and 20 megawatts of wave-generated energy with dozens of buoys tethered to the sea floor offshore and with 10 2-megawatt wind turbines located on the Fairhaven property and adjacent parcels.
It is unclear if the project is still moving forward and DG Energy Solutions officials could not be reached in time for this article.
THE MORE THE MERRIER
With so many turbines and buoys on the horizon, are the renewable energy projects competing with each other?
“Our feeling is we want to encourage anybody who wants to bring more renewable energy into California,” said PG&E spokesman David Eisenhower.
And for PG&E, which supplies the majority of the power in the area to approximately 125,000 customers, a plan to overhaul by 2009 its older fuel-burning power plant at King Salmon could mesh well with the wind and wave farms if and when they are built.
The plant’s new 10 “lean-burn” engines will be able to operate individually and the plant can be drawn down to compensate for the added electricity input from the wind turbines and still run efficiently, Eisenhower said.
The engines will also discharge 90 percent fewer air emissions, according to PG&E.
Eisenhower said the only major concern for PG&E with the new renewable energy projects is making sure that all possible environmental impacts are looked at and addressed.
Tim O’Leary, communications manager for Shell Renewables and Hydrogen, said several more years of studies looking at wildlife, avian, heritage and transportation issues will be necessary before the company commits to the investment for the Bear River Wind Power project.
“And there are far more wind farms planned than ever get built,” O’Leary said.
One of the studies the project has undertaken has looked at the federally endangered marbled murrelet birds that live and breed in the vicinity of the project area and are identified as potential risks.
In a study conducted by an Oregon-based environmental research firm last summer, the researchers indicated that risk of collisions at the Bear River Wind Power project is “very low” relative to many other coastal locations.
But given the lengthy breeding season of the birds, combined with their low flight patterns during their commute between the ocean and the inland forests where they nest, a low number of collisions could occur, the study concluded.
O’Leary said Humboldt County has a well-informed and educated community that he thinks is open to bringing a non-carbon renewable energy supply to the region.
And there are other aspects that could be seen as attractive to Humboldt County, which has identified renewable energy as a desirable in its recently drafted Energy Element as part of the General Plan update process.
O’Leary added that not only are Shell’s wind farms “good business” that deliver solid returns on the company’s investments, similar projects in other areas of the U.S. have juiced the local economy with millions of dollars of added revenue.
A partial application to the county has been submitted for the Bear River Wind Power project for a conditional use permit, which will require environmental review to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, as well as opportunities for public input.
Humboldt County Senior Planner Alyson Hunter said as soon as the application is completed, the county will begin its process of finding an environmental review contractor – most likely from out of the area – who is familiar with wind farms projects.
Bear River Wind Power project breakdown:
* 30-35 2-megawatt turbines approximately 260 feet tall
* 60-70 megawatts of electricity
* Approximately 3 miles of newly constructed access roads
* As many as five permanent meteorological towers
* A project substation where the underground collector cables from each turbine would connect to PG&E’s regional transmission system near Rio Dell through an overhead transmission line
by Nathan Rushton
24 March 2007
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