They’re a landmark for anyone who has driven Interstate 8 from San Diego to the Imperial Valley.
Visible for miles, towering wind turbines on the Campo Indian Reservation spin on the Tecate Divide, making electricity that’s delivered to San Diego Gas & Electric customers.
If developers have their way, the 25 turbines on the Kumeyaay Wind project will be joined by hundreds more nearby: in San Diego and Imperial counties and across the border in northern Baja California.
But the projects, 60 to 90 miles east of San Diego, face strong opposition from conservationists and local residents.
That makes the turbines part of an ongoing clash pitting people seeking to fight global warming and profit from it against those who want to keep California’s backcountry the way it’s been for thousands of years. Judges are already pondering lawsuits seeking to stop SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink and several large solar farms planned for the desert.
What happens to the wind projects will depend on whether regulators approve them, financiers back them and power companies buy their power.
The question is whether the wind that blows in the mountains and valleys east of San Diego will power the city or simply rustle sage.
The debate comes at a difficult time for the American wind industry, which, fighting financing woes, is seeing China and Europe put in much more such power.
Still, the proposals are driven by changes in state and federal policies designed to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the output of greenhouse gases.
California politicians are requiring big power companies, SDG&E included, to buy power from renewable sources – one-fifth of total power by the end of last year, one-third by the end of the decade.
For years, wind has been the cheapest such source – though solar is closing in.
Federal officials are making big swaths of the desert available for energy projects, and are subsidizing projects, offering cash rebates and tax credits to reimburse developers for 30 percent of their costs.
Opponents to the projects say the deserts and mountains are not a blank canvas to be exploited indiscriminately.
“We are facing a huge industrial threat to our area,” said Boulevard activist Donna Tisdale.
Along with others, she worries that the way of life that attracted her family San Diego County’s high desert will disappear as windmills pop up, power lines are strung and substations built.
Some of it is the view.
The sweeping vistas, rural mountaintops and desert valleys won’t look the same with big windmills – with blades as big as a jumbo jet’s wing – all around.
Some of it is the damage to the plants and animals unique to the place such as the golden eagle and the bighorn sheep.
And some of her concerns go beyond that, to things you can’t see – noise and electricity – but which she says are making people lose sleep, become irritable or worse.
“People are suffering adverse health effects now,” she said.
Critics of the projects are working on responding to a draft environmental study on one of the largest projects, Tule Wind, which would put 134 turbines on federal, tribal and private land in and near the McCain Valley, and has brought activists from elsewhere who warn of health problems and dropping property values.
The authors of the draft environmental impact study on Tule Wind said the best option would be to cut the project nearly in half because of damage to birds, vistas and Indian sites.
Officials with Iberdrola Renewables, the Spanish-owned company proposing Tule Wind, said reducing its size is not needed.
The claims of health effects are unproven, they say, and in some communities, property values went up, with wind farms nearby.
And not everyone in the backcountry is opposed.
Randy Lenac, of the Mountain Empire Business Association, says the wind farms are not a blight but “a strong symbol of how the environment can co-exist with modern technology.”
There’s a balance to be struck, he said, objecting to those he calls “radical conservationists.”
“At some point we must decide what provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” he said.
And, he says, the environmental approval process, which includes reviews by state and federal officials, means that some projects won’t get built the way they’re proposed because they’re too close to homes or environmentally sensitive areas.
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