A remote corner of East County is shaping up as a battleground between companies pushing wind farms as clean and cheap power generators and activists who view them as a blight on the landscape.
It has put environmentalists in the position of opposing renewable energy because, they say, it’s in the wrong place.
Drawing the most attention is a plan by the Spanish conglomerate Iberdrola to build about 100 skyscraper-sized towers in and near the McCain Valley, a federal conservation area abutting Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
The project, called Tule Wind, would produce about 200 megawatts when the wind is blowing favorably. To put that in perspective, San Diego County uses about 2,000 megawatts on a typical day and 4,500 megawatts when it gets really hot.
Tule Wind would stretch for miles from a spot about a mile north of Interstate 8, across land controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management and into the Ewiiaapaayp Indian Reservation.
Iberdrola wants to start construction late next year if it gets past the federal and state approval process.
It says the project will bring clean energy to a region that needs it.
Environmentalists and residents vow to vigorously fight the plan they say will forever change the area.
“There is no worse place for wind development than McCain Valley,” said environmental advocate David Hogan.
He and others tie the project to other planned developments nearby, including the Sunrise Powerlink.
The Campo Indian band has made a deal with San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Invenergy, a wind developer, for a 160-megawatt project to add to its 25-turbine, 50-megawatt wind farm visible from Interstate 8.
Just south of the border in Mexico, hundreds of wind turbines are being proposed by San Diego County companies looking to sell the generated power in the United States.
These wind proposals are in addition to two projects SDG&E says are needed to bring that power to market: the $1.9 billion Sunrise Powerlink and a $270 million substation it calls ECO for East County.
The companies are hoping to capitalize on California’s requirement that utilities provide 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by next year and 33 percent by 2020. They also stand to benefit from state and federal subsidies.
The plans upset Donna Tisdale, an activist who was elected head of the Boulevard planning group on an anti-wind agenda. She said she wants to preserve the rugged beauty of the high-desert landscape where she lives.
“They will be virtually on every prominent ridgeline around here,” she said. “They all impact the scenic integrity of the area, the visual appeal and the sense of time and place. This is one of the last frontiers that’s not fully developed.”
Some residents are bothered that most of the power would be sold 60 miles away in San Diego.
“The energy won’t be used in this area. It will run to the big cities,” said Boulevard resident Jerry Yops, who worries about noise and fire risks. “If they want power to the coast, let them put up windmills offshore.”
Proponents of the wind projects say they have to be where the wind is.
“There’s not a lot of suitable land,” said Ed Clark, who is developing the project for Iberdrola.
The project needs to be big to be economically viable, but the company will take care to limit its impact, he said.
For instance, the towers will be limited to the west side of the valley, so if you’re looking north and east, toward Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, you wouldn’t see them.
They’ll be placed lower on the ridges, so they won’t be quite as visible. Clark said concerns about noise are overblown. He said the towers make a “whoosh whoosh” sound, but not much more than that.
Online videos of exploding turbines touted by opponents reflect an earlier technology, Clark said, adding that Iberdrola has hundreds of turbines and has never started a fire with one of them.
While opponents worry about birds being struck by blade tips going 200 mph, studies will help decide the best place to put the towers to minimize such killings, he said.
The ridgeline, which runs south into the Baja Peninsula, is one of the best in the county, said Mike Allman, who heads Sempra Generation, a sister company to SDG&E working on the Mexican project.
“Do we want clean, green energy at relatively low cost?” he asked. “Today, that’s wind.”
Sempra’s Energia Sierra Juarez project is being built in Mexico, so it will require environmental approval from regulators there. It will also require U.S. approval because it will tie into the grid at SDG&E’s ECO substation.
And that gives environmentalists a voice.
They are already fighting ECO, telling the California Public Utilities Commission that building the substation will lead to wind projects that they say will harm the environment.
They say the issue isn’t just the towers or the substation.
They’ve tied their fight to the ongoing battle over the Sunrise Powerlink, the power line SDG&E wants to build from Imperial County to San Diego.
Approvals by the PUC and the Bureau of Land Management are being challenged, and the U.S. Forest Service has not approved the line yet, though SDG&E says it will begin construction next year.
The arguments against the wind projects parallel those against Sunrise: that it’s uneconomic and unnecessarily damaging to the environment.
Bill Powers, an electrical engineer, is a veteran of such fights and argues that the real reason behind these projects is that they’ll give SDG&E a reason to build infrastructure it can then use to raise its rates.
California regulators link utility profits to the value of infrastructure. That’s why big wind projects – and big transmission lines connecting to them – could add to SDG&E’s profits.
Powers also pointed out that the power produced by wind farms is worth less on the market than power from solar farms because it’s mostly produced at night, when power is at its cheapest.
“Why are we rumbling forward to preferentially develop our least valuable resource in areas that are ecologically sensitive, and in contrast leaving hundreds of square miles of San Diego to bake in the sun?” Powers asked.
Sempra’s Allman said the economics work out.
Wind costs less than big solar projects – which Sempra Generation is also pursuing – and those cost much less than putting solar panels on urban rooftops, the solution Powers prefers.
Besides the energy politics, there’s also the environmental impact.
The McCain Valley, bisected by a dirt road north of Interstate 8 in the county’s southeastern corner, is a scenic jewel, said Hogan, the environmental consultant fighting the Iberdrola project.
Although the wind towers would take up a relatively small parcel each, the roads they require would make it difficult for small animals to get around. The valley also is in the Pacific Flyway, the route taken by many migratory birds.
From an environmental point of view, Hogan said, other places make more sense for energy development, such as Imperial County farms that have gone fallow because of a lack of water.
“This isn’t environmentalists opposing renewable energy,” he said. “This is environmentalists opposing inappropriate industrial development.”