December 7, 2010

Altamont wind energy company to pay $2.5 million and replace turbines to reduce raptor deaths

By Denise Cuff, Contra Costa Times, 6 December 2010

The largest wind energy producer in the Altamont Pass area of eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties has agreed to replace 2,400 wind turbines within four years and pay $2.5 million in a legal settlement to reduce deaths of eagles, hawks and other raptors hacked by turbine blades.

The settlement between NextEra Energy Resources, the state, and several environmental groups was announced Monday by the state Attorney General Jerry Brown.

One environmental leader praised the deal as a model for producing wind energy while minimizing the heavy toll the whirling turbine blades take on hundreds of raptors each year.

“We think that is a landmark agreement that balances the need for clean energy with protections for wildlife,” said Michael Lynes, conservation director for the Golden Gate Audubon Society. “This is an aggressive schedule for replacing turbines with new ones. It will go a long way toward reducing the kills in the Altamont area.”

The settlement resolves a debate about whether the company was making sufficient progress toward a previous legal pledge to reduce bird kills by 50 percent from 2007 to 2010.

“Rather than focus on the 50 percent debate, we agreed to get something in place that uses modern technology to increase protections for the birds,” Lynes said. “This does not resolve all the problems with avian mortalities, but it is a big step forward toward reducing them.”

New wind turbines are much larger and produce much more energy than old ones, reducing the number of blades that birds can fly into.

Under the deal, NextEra agreed to replace 2,400 of its turbines within four years. If it falls behind schedule, the company also pledges to shut down all its existing turbines no later than 2015.

The company also pledged to put the new turbines in environmentally friendly locations. Many turbines installed in the Altamont Pass in the 1970s and 1980s were placed in swales between ridges where golden eagles like to soar while looking for prey, biologists say.

The wind company said it would contribute $1.25 million to the California Energy Commission for research on reducing bird kills at Altamont Pass.

The wind company will give another $1.25 million to the East Bay Regional Park District and the Livermore Area Recreation and Park to improve and protect raptor habitat.

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According to an 2004 state study, wind turbines at Altamont Pass kill an estimated 1,766 to 4,271 birds annually, including 880 to 1,330 raptors such as golden eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.

The Altamont Pass is a prime breeding and migratory area for raptors.

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