Demand for clean energy has led to a wind turbine building boom. But many living in their shadow decry the electricity generating projects as pesky eyesores.
Reporting from Tehachapi, Calif.—
Donna and Bob Moran moved to the wind-whipped foothills here four years ago looking for solitude and serenity amid the pinyon pines and towering Joshua trees.
But lately their view of the valley is being marred by a growing swarm of whirring wind turbines – many taller than the Statue of Liberty – sweeping ever closer to their home.
“Once, you could see stars like you wouldn’t believe,” Donna Moran said. “Now, with the lights from the turbines, you can’t even see the night sky.”
It’s about to get worse.
Turbines are multiplying at blistering speeds as wind developers, drawn by the area’s powerful gusts, attempt to meet an insatiable demand for clean energy.
Helo Energy plans to scatter 450-foot machines across hundreds of acres in nearby Sand Canyon. A few miles away, near the Old West Ranch enclave, Terra-Gen Power is building the nation’s largest wind farm with hundreds of turbines, if not more. The project, Alta Wind Energy Center, is backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from Google Inc. and Citibank.
Federal and local officials hail the Tehachapi Valley, a harsh desert expanse about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, as an alternative energy mecca that will help wean Americans off fossil fuel. Kern County, home to the nation’s largest concentration of wind farms, is looking forward to millions of dollars in much-needed tax revenue and has approved most proposed installations.
But wind projects aren’t only proliferating in the region’s outskirts. Nearly 3,000 turbines, many of them bigger than Ferris wheels, were installed across the country last year.
The growth is being propelled by federal incentives and state clean-energy mandates. In April, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that requires California utilities to get 33% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020. As of the first quarter of 2011, they’re at 17.9%.
But with thousands more wind projects on the drawing board, they’re increasingly generating opposition among local residents. Less than 100 miles from Tehachapi in the Antelope Valley, proposed turbine developments are facing similar resistance. Across the country, Cape Cod, Mass., residents and political heavyweights such as Sen. John Kerry waged war against what could be the country’s first offshore wind farm.
And the issue isn’t just with wind turbines, said Tom Soto, an environmental activist and managing partner of Craton Equity Partners.
“These large projects enter at their own peril without involving the community,” Soto said. “Just because they’re renewables instead of landfills doesn’t mean they’re off the hook.”
Residents of Blythe, Calif., near the border with Arizona, showed up at the recent groundbreaking of Solar Millennium’s massive solar plant there to protest its proximity to sacred Native American sites. Gleaming mirrors will blanket nearly 6,000 acres, helping to generate electricity for Southern California Edison.
In San Diego County, critics have spent the better part of a decade trying to block the Sunrise Powerlink transmission network, which would bring electricity from far-flung solar and wind farms.
Activists there and elsewhere say that the fight is more than a classic case of “not in my backyard” resistance. Large, remote projects aren’t the only solution to the nation’s energy woes, they say.
City-dwellers could produce just as much clean electricity without the transmission hassles, they said, using rooftop solar panels, small wind turbines, fuel cells and other adaptable forms of renewable energy generation.
“We’re going to need to find space to place these projects,” Soto said. “A successful portfolio will be balanced, with some utility-scale projects and some urban projects.”
Tehachapi activist Terry Warsaw said he’s worried his community will soon be surrounded by turbines.
“Alternative energy has lulled us into a sense of complacency,” he said. “The potential is here to take over every ridge and every mountainside if the community isn’t careful.”
Veterinarian Beverly Billingsley has been hosting anti-turbine community meetings in her new Sand Canyon barn, just up the slope from where the cluster of 450-foot machines is slated for construction.
“They are not benign things,” she said. “We’ve seen turbines go berserk.”
The machines get no more sympathy from Mother Mary Augustine, who lives cloistered at the Norbertine Sisters Monastery in a cradle of hills recently eyed for wind development.
“Monstrous insects,” she calls them. “I look at the propellers for a moment and my head gets dizzy.”
It’s not that they dislike alternative energy, residents say. Many employ solar panels and smaller turbines to power their homes.
Lately, though, locals say that farm animals have begun cowering as construction vehicles rumble across lawns and surveyor helicopters roar overhead. There are worries about turbine oil leaking into water wells and turbines obstructing landing maneuvers at the local airport.
“Avian cuisinarts,” said Sand Canyon resident April Biglay. She worries that more turbines could slaughter birds or cause ground vibrations that could decimate native species.
“We are resembling hundreds of towns around the country,” she said.
Last year, an older machine began spinning uncontrollably, forcing authorities to shut down a main freeway for hours. The resulting traffic was an anomaly in a community where most jams are caused by high school football games and meandering sheep.
Fire is also a concern, with turbines’ finicky electrical wiring, long fire department response times and limited roads on which to flee.
And the turbines could topple in an earthquake, since they’re situated in sedentary soil directly on the Garlock fault line, residents say.
Some suggest that removing trees to make way for the machines could lead to erosion and flooding.
They also argue that the projects aren’t helping the local economy. Local residents say pickup trucks driven by construction workers often have out-of-state license plates. Each new project causes nearby property values to plunge as much as 40%, city officials say.
And because companies aren’t required to dismantle the turbines when they stop functioning, many will join the hordes of “mechanical dinosaurs” that already crowd the area, critics say.
Other residents say they’re tired of making sacrifices for electricity that will go to other counties.
“It’s a question of what you’re willing to give up to be green,” said local lawyer Kassandra McQuillen of some recent project plans. “It’s like proposing clear-cutting Griffith Observatory or the cliffs of Malibu.”
Residents say they’ve won some victories. Developer Terra-Gen yanked its 7,000-acre Pahnamid project last month after opponents slammed plans to set up nearly 150 turbines on the Tehachapi crests.
“It is not unusual for projects to fall by the wayside early in the development process,” Terra-Gen said in a statement. “The decision to pull back in an early stage on the Pahnamid project was a result of several important development concerns, including local opposition.”
By the end of the year, the developer said it will have invested $2.2 billion in Kern County, become the county’s third largest taxpayer with $30 million a year and made more progress building its 1,100-megawatt Alta project.
But with so many projects on the plate for the region, Tehachapi city officials are urging Kern County to impose a temporary moratorium on wind projects near homes. And the city that has long been associated with the fields of propellers is now trying to draw tourists by talking up its chili cook-offs, historic downtown and pristine mountains.
“We’ve coexisted with the turbines for a long time,” City Council member Susan Wiggins said. “But we don’t want to look like one big wind park.”
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