Despite yearlong effort to curb bird deaths by turbines on the Altamont Pass, many still have perished
The long hot summers of the San Joaquin Valley suck great tsunamis of cool coastal air through the Altamont Pass, producing winds so powerful that a person can lean nearly 45 degrees without falling down.
Such awesome force gave birth in the early 1980s to the world’s largest collection of wind turbines, pioneers in what is now America’s fastest-growing form of renewable energy and an increasingly important weapon in the battle against global warming.
But the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area is also a symbol of the wind industry’s biggest stain – the killings of thousands of birds, including majestic golden eagles, by turbines. The result has been a wrenching civil war among those who are otherwise united in the struggle to save the planet and its creatures.
It’s been nearly a year since a controversial legal settlement was forged among wildlife groups, wind companies and Alameda County regulators. That agreement, opposed by some parties to the dispute, promised to reduce deaths of golden eagles and three other raptor species by 50 percent in three years and called for the shutdown or relocation of the 300 or so most lethal of the approximately 5,000 windmills at Altamont.
But five scientists appointed by the county say the settlement and accompanying efforts to reduce bird deaths are not on track to meet the 50 percent goal, and they recently surveyed the Altamont to determine which additional turbines should be removed or relocated to spots less likely to kill birds.
Known officially as the Scientific Review Committee, the panel agreed Dec. 21 that more turbines need to be removed or relocated. It issued a new list of 309 targeted turbines, plus 102 more if the wind companies refuse to continue a current, temporary shutdown of all their windmills into February. The wind operators had previously agreed to a two-month shutdown, for November and December.
The newly named lethal turbines are in addition to the dozens already shut down under the settlement’s plan to gradually remove the most deadly windmills.
FPL Energy, the company with the most turbines in the Altamont, has not seen the specifics of the new recommendations from the scientists and cannot comment, company spokesman Steven Stengel said last week.
The scientists’ findings are advisory for a continuing “meet and confer process” among all the parties, who are under instructions from Alameda County officials – who exercise regulatory authority over the wind farms – to negotiate mutually acceptable solutions.
“We are deeply distressed about the continuing bird deaths and about the companies not being on track for the 50 percent reduction,” said Elizabeth Murdock, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, a chief plaintiff in the lawsuit that has reshaped the battle over the birds.
But Stengel said, “It is too early in the process to accurately judge whether we are on track.” The scientific review is meant to find ways of protecting the birds without putting the companies out of business, he said.
No one knows for sure how many birds are killed by the Altamont turbines – a 2004 California Energy Commission report estimated the golden eagle toll to be between 75 and 116 a year, while total bird kills were put in the 1,766 to 4,721 range. The Audubon Society lawsuit targets four raptor species – golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel and burrowing owl – which suffered 456 to 1,129 fatalities per year, the study estimated.
Subsequent data indicate that bird deaths have not decreased since the settlement was reached last January and that efforts to achieve a 50 percent reduction in three years are far behind, said Shawn Smallwood, an independent consultant in avian ecology who co-authored the 2004 California Energy Commission study and is one of the five county-appointed scientists.
James Walker, president-elect of the industry-backed American Wind Energy Association, said the wind companies also want to save birds and are helping to fund the study of the problem. He also said wind power helps save bird lives by combatting global warming, which the National Audubon Society acknowledges as a threat to many bird species.
Rick Koebbe, head of Altamont Winds Inc., another of the half-dozen firms that own turbines in the Altamont, said the impact on birds has to be weighed against the human deaths and diseases that are reduced by using wind power instead of pollution-producing fossil fuels.
Numerous surveys and studies of dead birds have taken place in the Altamont going back to at least 1992, but the analysis, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office review of the studies, “has been complicated by confounding variables.”
The problem is not simply birds running into spinning blades. Many dead birds have been found around turbines that were turned off. Some have been electrocuted by live wires near operating turbines, while others apparently were killed by predators.
Despite the perplexing data, many experts agree that a chief cause of bird deaths is the sheer number of windmills at Altamont, which features many old, small turbines in the 100-kilowatt range. More modern wind farms employ taller, more powerful machines able to generate 1 to 3 megawatts.
Replacing the many old turbines with fewer, more powerful ones – a process termed “repowering” – is official county policy and would be “a big part of the solution,” Murdock said. The idea is that bigger turbines would not only dramatically reduce the spinning blades to about one-tenth of their current number but also turn more slowly and be higher off the ground, presumably moving them farther away from raptors that dive for mice and other prey.
“Repowering is supposedly the silver bullet, if there is one,” said Chris Gray, chief of staff for Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Scott Haggerty, whose district includes Altamont.
But full repowering would cost about $1 billion – money that the wind companies may not be able to afford, Walker said.
Finding the right balance for wind and birds is the central focus of the settlement agreement, which brought a legal truce to a 3-year-old lawsuit by five chapters of the Audubon Society and Californians for Renewable Energy.
The plaintiffs had sued Alameda County, contending that the renewed wind-power permits approved by the county in 2005 violated the California Environmental Quality Act and didn’t do enough to protect the birds. About 78 percent of the Altamont turbines are in Alameda County, with the remainder in Contra Costa County, which is not part of the lawsuit or settlement.
Implementing the agreement and its core mandate of figuring out which turbines are the most dangerous has meant spending a lot of hours among the windmills for the scientists.
“This is one of the places that had the highest mortality rates,” said Rutgers University biologist Joanna Burger, pointing to a ridge of turbines as she and the four other scientists huddled against the chilly wind on their recent four-day tour.
It’s a formidable task among the thousands of windmills that stand in irregular rows like a scattered army of propeller-headed sentinels on the rolling hills and ridges of Altamont. The site is spread over 50 square miles, an expanse larger than the city of San Francisco.
An invaluable help in their search was Brian Karas, part of the bird-death monitoring group, which consists of six full-time workers who spend their days dodging rattlesnakes and cow pies to search for and count dead birds.
Holding a map flecked with different-colored Post-it notes, Karas rattled off mortality data. “Kestrel,” he said pointing to one turbine where a dead kestrel was found. “Nothing, nothing,” he said of the next two turbines, where no dead birds have been found. “Two red-tail,” he said of the fourth windmill.
Although the settlement is supported by the county, most of the wind companies and the Audubon societies, it also faces opposition. Koebbe’s company refused to join the pact, in large part because it didn’t want to pay legal fees of the plaintiffs, he said.
Also opposing the settlement is the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a separate suit directly against the windmill companies, saying the firms were illegally killing wildlife protected by state and federal law. An Alameda County Superior Court judge rejected the suit, ruling that migratory birds are not “public trust property.” The decision has been appealed; no court date has been set.
Alameda County Supervisor Gail Steele voted against the pact because she wanted a more accelerated reduction in bird deaths. “I understand this is an economic hardship to the wind farms, but how do you know how much of a hardship?” she said. “Nobody ever opens their books.”
Nevertheless, Steele said, both the wind industry and the birds need to be protected.
“All environmentalists should support both things,” she said.
2004 California Energy Commission report on Altamont bird deaths:
2005 U.S. Government Accountability Office report on wind power’s impacts on wildlife:
In Bay Area: A National Park Service contest enlists public to help protect endangered species. B1
To address the issue of wind power and bird deaths at Altamont, contact:
— The Alameda County Planning Department, which is coordinating a legal settlement and scientific review: (510) 670-5400.
— The Alameda County Board of Supervisors, which will eventually revisit the Altamont issues: (510) 272-6984; www.acgov.org/board.
— The Golden Gate Audubon Society: (510) 843-2222; www.goldengateaudubon.org.
— FPL Energy, the largest wind operator in the Altamont: www.fplenergy.com.
— The American Wind Energy Association: (202) 383-2500; www.awea.org.
— Center for Biological Diversity: (415) 436-.9682; www.biologicaldiversity.org.
By Charles Burress
Chronicle Staff Writer
2 January 2008
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