With the silence of a giant California condor, the historic Lompoc Wind Farm Project has soared without fanfare to a point just seven months from groundbreaking.
The undertaking, reported to have cost $120 million, is one of the first wind farm projects ever proposed on the breezy Central Coast. It is expected to generate up to 120 megawatts of electricity, enough for 60,000 homes. The source will be 60-80 towering windmills, or turbines, on gusty Tranquillon Ridge seven miles south of Lompoc.
The turbines will be up to 328 feet high. With blades ranging to 164 feet, the larger of the structures will reach 492 feet into the sky at the top of each revolution. The turbines will weigh up to 285 tons.
And it may be only the start. A second wind power company has expressed interest in nearby property.
“It really is a little bit of history,” property owner LeRoy Scolari said Thursday. “Most of the people I encounter are well-pleased with the project.”
Scolari, whose father was born on the land at the end of San Miguelito Road in 1890, is one of six landowners who have signed leases with Acciona, a Spanish conglomerate reputed to be the largest renewable energy producer in the world. Acciona also owns Nevada Solar One in Boulder City, Nev., the third largest solar power plant in the world, generating 64 megawatts.
“It would supply the needs of the majority of the North County,” Scolari continued about the local project. “Of course the power will go into the PG&E grid, but in terms of power outages in times of high demand the closer to the source you are the safer you’ll be.”
PG&E has already contracted for 82.5 megawatts for 20 years, according to a county report. With a few scattered meteorological poles being the only physical evidence on site, a presentation of the county’s draft Environmental Impact Report at Lompoc City Hall two weeks ago was the first tangible public action involving the endeavor’s progress in a year.
Reaction at the gathering seemed to echo what Scolari’s chats elicited – what county planner Kevin Drude calls “guarded acceptance” of the project.
The draft EIR identifies only two long-term unavoidable impacts of the project – visual and biological.
Visual impact will result from the proximity of the wind turbines to Jalama Beach County Park and that of an accompanying new power line to Highway 1. The power line could be hidden by use of an overland route to the PG&E substation in Lompoc, but the turbines will be visible from Jalama unless the project is limited to 50 turbines.
Also unavoidable will be the destruction of birds and bats killed in collisions with turbine blades. That’s what troubles the Audubon Society, the only organized group to raise significant questions about the project.
“We are not totally against it,” said Tamarah Taaffe, treasurer of the La Purisima chapter of Audubon. “We just want it placed optimally. On any wind farm, placement is the most important thing. Our basic goal was to support it and work with them on placement.”
Taaffe added, however, that she considered the county’s avian studies inadequate. “Their bird studies were like trying to determine how many kids would go to a school by driving by during Easter vacation,” she said.
Taafe enumerated the long-eared owl, the horned lark and the golden eagle as species at risk.
“The blades move at 200 mph at the tip. It looks kind of lazy but they are so massive. Each blade is replaced within a second. That’s not terribly slow.”
The EIR document acknowledges inevitable damage.
“We know birds will be killed,” said Drude, a county energy specialist. “So we’re going to assume the worst. Since we don’t know the number, we’ll adapt to it. We’re suggesting ‘adaptive mitigation.’ If there are turbines which are more dangerous (than others) they could be shut down at certain hours or seasons.”
Other mitigation measures may include painting the blades and changes in lighting.
An eight-month construction phase is slated to begin next spring and it will bring temporary disruption. The payoff, though, according to the report, is “up to 350 million kilowatts of electricity annually.”
The draft EIR is available to the public online(www.county ofsb.org/energy/projects/ LompWindEnergy.asp), in print at the Lompoc and Vandenberg Village libraries, and at county planning offices in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.
The county has scheduled a public hearing for 7 p.m. Aug. 30 at Lompoc City Hall to listen to comments.
“I’m really interested in the community’s input,” Drude said. “I want to hear from people who live along San Miguelito Road, who’ll be stuck behind a big truck during construction.”
Next step after that will be the county Planning Commission and perhaps the Board of Supervisors. The county Agriculture Preserve Advisory Committee OK’d the project last year.
“When I was first approached about this, I wasn’t too interested, said Scolari. “I had friends up in Altamont Pass. I said, ‘I don’t want any part of it – guy wires and a whole lot of stuff.” Older wind farms had wires and supports which hindered stock from grazing.
“We went over to Tehachapi and it looked like a bone yard,” he chuckled. “They were taking down the little ones and putting up the new big ones. Cattle can graze right up to them. There’s almost no impact to the agriculture operation.
“You won’t find a more remote location. Vandenberg has no problem because it’s closed air space. To see it from Vandenberg Village you’d have to have very good eyes or a telescope.”
By John McReynolds/Record Correspondent
19 August 2007
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