Two years ago Kern County supervisors blessed construction of the massive 800-megawatt Alta-Oak Creek Mojave wind energy project in the rolling hills and scrub-filled desert between Tehachapi and Mojave.
What followed was a frenetic effort by developers to claim a portion of Kern County’s wind energy gold rush.
Now, wind turbine farms approved during the boom are expected to cover an area roughly twice the size of the urban portions of Bakersfield, generate some 4.2 gigawatts of power to an estimated one million homes and send tens of millions of dollars in taxes each year into local government coffers.
Along the way there has been spotty opposition from area residents who see wind turbines as a threat to their way of life.
Proposals for new wind farms are tapering off as federal green energy tax credits phase out, Kern County’s reserves of prime land zoned for turbines dwindle and the capacity of existing transmission lines is used up.
Only four wind energy projects are waiting for their day before county supervisors.
Coming next are years of construction that promise to change the face of the western Mojave Desert and eastern slopes of the Tehachapi Mountains.
Terra-Gen Power Vice President Randy Hoyle said 290 wind turbines have been installed at Alta-Oak Creek since the project was approved, pouring $2.2 billion of investment into eastern Kern and, when the wind blows, 1,020 megawatts of electricity into the Southern California Edison power grid.
Massive pinwheels of steel and fiberglass whose three blades sweep 1.5 acres of air, arching to nearly 500 feet above their towers’ foundations, now loom over stretches of formerly untouched land and uninterrupted vistas.
And many hundreds more are on their way.
Kern County has a big financial stake in the explosion of alternative energy development in rural east Kern.
In 2012, said Hoyle, his company expects to pay $30 million in taxes that will be divided up among the county and other local governments and special districts. Terra-Gen also plans to install another 500 megawatts of power next year – an additional investment of $1 billion.
Kern County Assistant Assessor Tony Ansolabehere is cautious about verifying the amount wind energy development, or Terra-Gen specifically, will pay in the 2012-2013 tax year.
Company financial information won’t be available for several months and, until then, it isn’t certain how much the value of largely unused desert land will be enhanced by the installation of hundreds of $2 million structures, Ansolabehere said.
But he did say the county’s current $1.1. billion assessed value of wind energy development will grow – expecially since Terra-Gen is announcing it has invested $2.2 billion on its own and a handful of other developers are constructing sizable projects.
The $1.1 billion value assigned to wind energy properties would have generated about $11 million in taxes in the current year for local governments, Ansolabehere said.
Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said, so far, there has been “more than $3.2 billion of out-of-state investment in Kern County.”
Hoyle also pointed out that his company alone has added 114 long-term jobs and a wave of many more short-term construction gigs, sales tax revenue and support for businesses in Tehachapi and Mojave.
But Ansolabehere notes that the tax value of Terra-Gen’s investment in Kern County might be complicated by the fact that wind energy developers who break ground on projects by the end of 2012 can, and have been, claiming federal tax credit grants equal to 30 percent of their project cost.
According to U.S. Treasury Department data updated in November, Alta Energy projects in Kern County alone have been given $467.9 million in “production tax credit” payments.
The benefit Kern County taxpayers are expected to see from wind installations will be powered by contributions of taxpayers on a national level.
Veterinarian Beverly Billingsley has lived in the rural Sand Canyon community for nearly as long as wind turbines have been in the area, raising four children and running her veterinary practice out of the large red barn at Horse Apple Ranch since the 1980s.
In the 80s, residents of the large box canyon south of Tehachapi fought off plans to build wind turbines near their homes. So when Billingsley learned a few years ago that Helo Energy planned to bring next-generation turbines to 300 acres at Sand Canyon’s front doorstep, her response was powerful.
“Oh my god, I’m going to have to move,” she thought.
What she did instead is join with other neighbors to form the Friends of Sand Canyon, an organization dedicated to fighting the project.
Since then the Helo project has stalled – but not died – due to county planners’ concerns with the plan.
Billingsly is not sure that her organization had much to do with that.
“We’re rural residents. We don’t have any voting power because we’re not packed into a square acre,” she said. “All we can do is squeak and squeak and squeak. We’ve done a lot of squeaking.”
What they are up against, she said, is a county that has teamed up with developers to promote alternative energy development at any cost.
“Their motivation is to collect money for the county, not so much to protect the citizens,” Billingsley said. “They’ve sold us down the river because they want to line the coffers.”
Compared to the 3,262 megawatts of new wind development already approved in Kern County, the Sand Canyon project, at 20 megawatts of power, is small potatos.
But for Billingsley, the maximum of 17 turbines would bring massive change to her life.
“I’ve got a horse ranch. We like to trail ride and sit outside and watch the stars,” she said. “They’re painting a picture that it’s a wonderful way to go. But we haven’t bought into it. It’s forever going to change the character (of Sand Canyon).”
And, if Helo Energy wins the fight, Billingsley said, she will take action outside her small community.
“If they put them in the mouth of the canyon, I’m going to be (Kern County Supervisor) Zack Scrivner’s worst nightmare,” she said. “I’m really not political. I just want to be a veterinarian, living the James Herriot lifestyle. But if they’re not going to let me…”
Scrivner said Kern County needs to capitalize on its natural features.
“Because we have the wind resources, the solar resources, we have the ability to benefit from these industries like no one else in the state can,” he said.
Scrivner, who took office earlier this year in the middle of the wind development boom, has walked a delicate line in dealing with alternative energy projects.
He supported the hotly contested Jawbone and North Sky River projects west of Red Rock Canyon State Park, the small Clearvista project east of Tehachapi and the Alta Infill II project – a 750-megawatt project by Alta-Oak Creek developer Terra-Gen Power that comes within a quarter mile of homes in neighborhoods west of Mojave.
But when the 411-megawatt Pahnamid project was proposed on the forested slopes south of the city of Tehachapi by Terra-Gen – the biggest wind energy developer in Kern County – citizens and leaders of Tehachapi rallied to oppose the idea while the project was still in its early phases.
Scrivner spoke out in opposition. Planning Director Oviatt cast a questioning eye on the project. And Terra-Gen pulled the proposal.
Scrivner opposed Pahnamid, he said, because of “the negative impact I thought that was going to have on tourism and the economic interests in the Tehachapi area.”
The community’s mountain backdrop defines Tehachapi, he said, and “putting wind turbines there would have severely impacted that community.”
Yet when Scrivner voted to approve the 530-megawatt Alta Infill II project near Mojave, he discounted similar arguments from residents who protested that wind turbines would forever alter the nature of their desert vistas, destroy animal habitat and create other dangers.
He told residents that their concerns about visual impacts simply didn’t trump the financial value of the wind project to Kern County.
Other people, he said recently, have to deal with unsightly development near their homes.
“There are folks that live in Bakersfield that have beautiful homes up on the bluffs and they look over the bluffs and they see oil fields. There are going to be some folks who are not going to be happy because their view has been altered,” Scrivner said.
But Scrivner is calling for the development of a specific boundary map that would limit where wind projects can be developed and trying to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to remove flashing red lights on the tops of the wind turbines that are another annoyance for nearby residents.
But, in the end, he supports renewable energy.
“I have a responsibility to folks who live in Bakersfield and other communities who aren’t in the Second District at all,” he said. He had to ask himself, “What is the greatest good here? From my perspective, these renewable energy projects will drastically improve the lives of everyone in Kern County.”
Kathy Morey of Big Pine near Bishop on the east side of the Sierra Nevada would say the benefit extends beyond Kern County.
Morey stopped in Mojave on a recent drive and caught lunch at Denny’s. To her eyes, the wind turbines on the horizon have a sort of beauty, though she can understand how locals feel and knows there are worries about wind projects that have been considered near her home.
But she believes clean energy is critical to the state and nation and, at some point, people need to make a change.
“There’s no free lunch,” she said. “Alternative energy is great. Everybody has to give up something.”
But those who see 500-foot-tall machines marching closer to their homes have little inclination to accept wind development near them.
In public meeting after public meeting, opponents of the wind turbines have raised safety and environmental concerns in a largely futile effort to convince supervisors not to approve wind projects near their homes.
County planning officials stand behind the hundreds of pages of environmental reports drafted for each project, and the conclusions supervisors have drawn from them.
There are, the reports acknowledge, impacts to the environment from wind turbines that include potential threats to wildlife, air quality during construction and the visual character of the places where windmills are installed.
But supervisors have ruled over and over again that the value of the projects to the county financially and to the state’s push to generate 33 percent of California’s retail electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2020 trump the environmental impacts.
That argument doesn’t fly with residents who argue the environmental reports don’t consider some very real threats.
They point to internet videos and photos of iced-up turbine blades that could fling ice chunks, runaway turbines, explosions, fires and broken machinery to argue that siting turbines anywhere near homes simply isn’t safe.
They note videos of birds being hit by turbine blades and worry about the threat to endangered California condors. They complain about the noise turbines can produce and the danger from development to protected species like the desert tortoise.
Oviatt said she understands the concerns but many of the problems shown in the videos and photos are specific to where they happened and that the county has required safety measures and operational controls on developers that will help ensure safety.
“We take every one of those questions seriously,” Oviatt said.
No project has been guaranteed approval, she said, and more than 650 megawatts of power – worth $20 million in annual property tax revenue – have been eliminated from consideration because they triggered environmental concerns or were too close to homes.
“All the projects have gone through full (and) complete environmental impact reports which are a 12- to 14- month processes with multiple public notice(s) and two hearings before the (Kern County) Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors,” Oviatt wrote in an email. “No corners have been cut. The projects fully comply with (the California Environmental Quality Act) and all state and federal laws.”
The Sierra Club, however, has filed a lawsuit against Kern County over its approval of the North Sky River and Jawbone projects.
Tehachapi attorney Kassandra McQuillen, whose husband works in the wind industry and who has clients in the business, has spoken out against several projects and says, in general, the county has been distracted by the tax revenue the projects can generate.
“I think our county as a whole is not looking at these things logically. I think they’re seeing dollar signs,” she said.
She doesn’t think that opponents have had much of an impact on slowing or stopping the projects, or that some of their more fantastic claims have much merit.
But McQuillen questions whether the county and developers, in the rush to claim federal tax credits and tax revenue, have done the best job of locating windmills.
“My big issue is they are too close to each other. They have to be a certain distance apart to be within warranty,” she said. “I see the county’s perspective. It’s money. But how long is that money going to be there if they’re not put up right?”
Hoyle, of Terra-Gen, said there have been no shortcuts in the environmental work done for his company’s projects and windmills have been placed in the right locations using 60 to 70 criteria that eliminate inadequate or environmentally unsuitable sites.
“They’re not just dots on a map,” he said.
Over the next several years, the number of turbines raised in Kern County will explode as the industry moves from permitting developments to building them.
But there are what Hoyle calls “headwinds” slowing down industry expansion.
Tax credits for wind energy construction are not likely to be extended in the current political climate, he said, and the 4,500-megawatt Southern California Edison transmission line that helped trigger the boom in east Kern is expected to run out of capacity.
Oviatt said Kern County is driving toward its goal of permitting 10 gigawatts of renewable power, having permitted 6,000 megawatts of alternative energy with another 2,000 megawatts in the process of approval.
Much of that future growth, however, will likely be in solar energy as the solar power industry can still earn tax credits until 2016.
And even that growth could be blunted by the lack of transmission lines to carry the power, Oviatt said.
Still, Hoyle said, wind development isn’t over in Kern County.
“Wind will always have a place,” he said.
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