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Wind farm thrusts remote desert town into future

OCOTILLO, Calif. – The nation’s quest for more green energy is set on a collision course in this town on the edge of the windswept Imperial Valley desert.

Construction has started on an array of 112 wind turbines that will arise on three sides of Ocotillo by mid-2013.

With blades swirling more than 400 feet into the sky, the wind farm will supply utility customers in San Diego and southern Orange counties with enough electricity to power as many as 125,000 coastal homes.

The project is part of a broad slate of large-scale solar and wind installations that will tie into a major new electrical transmission line – the Sunrise Powerlink – leading east from San Diego for 117 miles.

The Sunrise line, scheduled for completion this month after 1½ years under construction, places a new premium on the Imperial Valley’s unrelenting sunshine and one of California’s few untapped wind corridors.

But in Ocotillo, plans for wind turbines – with their low-frequency hum and nighttime flashing aircraft beacons – have forged stark divisions among desert dwellers accustomed to isolation, fathomless vistas and dark starry nights.

Front-yard banners in Ocotillo, about 70 miles from San Diego, heap shame on the Bureau of Land Management for granting a 30-year right-of-way that will place windmills within half a mile of some homes.

“Everything I moved out here for they want to take away,” said Jim Pelley, whose front porch will have an unobstructed view of the construction.

Indian tribes who trace their ancestry to the area have scoured the scrublands in recent weeks for unmarked cremation and archaeological sites, with one tribe challenging the power plant in court.

Others in the area see a rare opportunity to attract construction jobs, and to play a small role in the nation’s quest for energy independence.

Caryn George, 52, who was laid off at a nearby gravel mine amid a weak construction economy, said the project’s advantages over fossil fuels and the potential for a local economic boost outweigh the negative impacts on the nearby desert.

“Sometimes you have to think for the greater good. I know that sounds totally cheese-ball,” George said. “They’re coming. … Let’s do the best we can.”


Where it descends the eastern slope of San Diego County into the Imperial Valley, the serpentine Sunrise Powerlink could eventually give rise to a half-dozen industrial-scale wind projects, backed by large U.S. and international energy concerns.

Pattern Energy, a privately held developer of wind projects stretching from Canada to Chile, leads the pack.

At Ocotillo, it already has begun carving roads into the desert soil – within view of the shimmering lattice of new transmission towers.

Other wind prospectors include Iberdrola, the second-largest developer of wind projects in the U.S. and the world’s leading provider of wind power.

The Sunrise line also promises to free up grid capacity for wind turbines on the high plains of Baja California.

The coupled expansion of wind power and transmission lines are an emerging trend in the U.S. wholesale power industry, says Jon Wellinghoff,, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which ensures the dependability of the nation’s bulk-electricity system.

“Most of the most economically viable energy – certainly for wind – is in remote locations that need transmission to deliver it,” Wellinghoff said.

He – along with Cabinet secretaries at the departments of Energy, Agriculture and Interior – are seeking ways to speed permitting for power lines leading to renewable energy.

That’s just one facet of government support behind the exponential growth of the U.S. wind industry over the past decade.

At Ocotillo, plans for big wind are perched atop layers of incentives for green energy: the use of public lands, federal tax credits, state clean-energy mandates and possibly a development bank loan backed by the U.S. and Mexican governments.

It is unclear how much utility customers will pay and tax collectors forgo in return for the dose of green energy at Ocotillo – or from other projects harnessed by the Sunrise Powerlink.

Power purchase agreement like the 20-year deal between SDG&E and Ocotillo Express, a Delaware corporation set up by Pattern, are not made public until years after their approval by regulators.

Opponents of the project doubt the skies over Ocotillo have enough sustained breezes to fulfill promises.

“It’s a federally funded wind project in an area without the required wind,” said Bill Pate, a San Diego attorney whose parents retired to Ocotillo. “It’s the classic bridge to nowhere.”

Pattern said the wind speeds at Ocotillo were documented during three years of studies, confirmed by independent consultants.

The project, said Pattern CEO Mike Garland in an email, “was selected by the BLM to help California reach its clean energy goals and contribute to the nation’s energy security.”


Ocotillo’s population of 265 is dominated by residents beyond their child-rearing years, many on fixed incomes.

A few have come here to allay respiratory problems. Most say the main attractions were the distant horizons and muted desert ecology.

Any turn-off from the town’s tidy grid of paved streets leads to desert solitude.

“It’s quiet – very quiet. If you like quiet,” explains Rose Nolta, who raised three children here and now runs the Lazy Lizard Saloon.

It’s a town that has been thrust abruptly into America’s energy-production future.

In May, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a right-of-way grant, bringing to a close three years of impact studies for a power plant that will stretch across about 10,000 acres, forming a crescent around the town.

Local conservationists and an Arizona-based tribe that traces its ancestry to the area have turned to state and federal courts to stop the project from going forward, seeking injunctive relief through three separate lawsuits.

They contend that protected species – Peninsular big horn sheep, among them – Ocotillo residents, and archaeological resources received short shrift in the studies approved by federal, California and Imperial County officials.

Working with the Bureau of Land Management, Pattern devised wildlife and environmental safeguards. The company, a business partner with Indian tribes on other wind projects, will have teams of independent archaeologists and tribal monitors on-site during construction.

East of Ocotillo, in San Diego County, planners and politicians are rewriting rules that may determine where the next big wind farms can and cannot go.

Clean-energy experts say fears about the proliferation of wind turbines are unfounded: Only a handful of remote locations are worth developers’ time.

“The political decision is whether you inconvenience 100 or 150 people in order to provide clean, renewable power for decades to 50,000 or 60,000 homes,” explained Jim Waring, president of CleanTECH San Diego. “I’m not minimizing the concerns of the people who live there. … It has to be somewhere.”

At Ocotillo, the fight is over for some.

“What was public land is going to be private land given to a large investment company,” said Tim Lamb, an on-and-off resident for 20 years at Nomirage, a cluster of fenced lots and trailer homes at the edge of Ocotillo.

“We did all we could,” he said “There were forces, forces in the government, that were way to powerful for us to overcome.”