The irony was enormous. San Diego’s Board of Supervisors yesterday spent much of the morning debating whether cell phone towers five feet taller than current ones would mar community character on Mount Helix. In the afternoon, three of the five Supervisors then threw county height limits to the winds—voting to approve 500-foot-tall industrial wind turbines in scenic McCain Valley over the objections of numerous backcountry residents.
By a 4-0 vote, Supervisors also approved a power substation and cross-border transmission lines designed to bring power up from the massive Energia Sierra Juarez wind project proposed in Mexico.
“Where is the logic?” testified Craig Maxwell, a former Republican candidate for mayor in La Mesa who enjoys hiking in the backcountry. “What makes Mount Helix a special case…yet you are considering skyscraper-high turbines in a wilderness area?”
Supervisors approved all five turbines under County jurisdiction, in so doing certifying the Environmental Impact Statement for the entire Tule Wind project, which includes a total of 96 turbines, mostly on federal Bureau of Land Management property that is the gateway to designated wilderness areas and a popular destinations for campers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob fought a fierce battle to convince her colleagues to deny both projects and consider “cumulative impacts like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” Her motions to deny each project failed. She then to postpone a decision on Tule Wind until the Manzanita Indians’ health study is completed to determine whether their illnesses are linked, as they contend, to stray voltage 1,000 times normal measured on their reservation near Campo’s existing wind turbines. That effort failed, too.
Repeatedly, Jacob urged her colleagues to take time and create a regional energy policy centered around less destructive alternatives for meeting renewable energy goals, such as rooftop and parking lot solar, which has dropped sharply in price and is now competitive with wind in price, as experts attested.
She also denounced the trans-border transmission line , noting that there is litigation pending seeking to halt it.
An SDG&E representative dismissed that concern, stating, “Lawsuits are just a part of developing projects these days.”
Jacob then asked colleagues on the board to at least delay a decision until a presidential permit is issued. They refused. Nor were they swayed by her concerns of “serious problems about an energy policy for our region that depends on the stability of Mexico.”
All pleas from Jacob, who represents East County, fell on deaf ears. The board majority also ignored the opinions of East County’s two Congressional Representatives, Republican Duncan Hunter and Democrat Bob Filner, who have both weighed in against one or both of the big energy projects.
A parade of speakers, virtually all of whom represented groups that took money from SDG&E or Iberdrola or have SDG&E representatives on their boards, stepped up to praise the projects.
“The sun doesn’t always shine, even in East Coumty,” said Jason Anderson with CleanTech San Diego, who testified that Tule Wind will “have a positive impact on our region’s economy.”
Sharon Courmousis , owner of Sacred Rocks Reserve also supported the Tule Wind project. “My selfish and my noble reasons coincide, this will bring jobs and money into our community and my business,” she said.
The cross-border transmission project similarly drew support from business interests, including Paul Webster, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, who praised the line as a “clean and stable source of energy.” In addition, Bil Pape, former chair of the Jacumba Sponsor Group, voiced support for the project on job creation grounds.
The items were slated as numbers four and five on the agenda. But despite a roomful of people, many of whom drove from remote backcountry areas to testify, the Supervisors opted to break for a two-hour lunch after the Energia Sierra Juarez hearing.
After their leisurely lunch, they then took more time to announce the retirement of Walt Eckard, the County’s Chief Administrative Officer. After extolling him with accolades and voting to have a closed door session later on choosing a replacement, the Board finally took up Tule Wind mid-afternoon.
Many who had showed up at 9 a.m. to speak against it had to leave. Those who asked for extra time to represent those who left were denied this privilege by Chairman Roberts.
At the morning hearing, Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, presented a slideshow and chastised a staff report that concluded her area “has no character,” noting that “the starkness and the beauty is what we thrive on.” She decried a “culture of corruption” that has pushed to allow SDG&E to import “more power than what Southwest and Sunrise Powerlinks will do together.”
She presented evidence of noise violations by Iberdrola that remain unresolved at another project close to homes, but the three male Supervisors chose to blithely believe an Iberdrola spokesman who assured that noise regulations here will be met – even though the turbines here will be even larger.
Tisdale showed images of wind turbines dwarfing the Statue of Liberty to argue that the bulk and scale was incompatible with a rural area. She also showed a chart listing many more power projects queued up than can be put on the grid. In addition, she detailed cracks from vibrations at an Iberdrola facility.
Her presentation also included numerous images of wind turbine fires, including some that started on Iberdrola wind sites and examples of wildfires started by wind turbines. “Please help us,” she implored.
Retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mark Ostrander spoke against both projects, warning that firefighters would be unable to battle blazes beneath the blades and powerlines, nor could planes make fire drops since they typically do so at 150 feet altitude—and the turbines will be nearly 500 feet tall with blades whirling.
Ostrander noted that California has 76 gigawatts of rooftop solar potential, not counting parking lots, which would be even more.
Laurie Ostrander of Jacumba asked how many firefighter deaths will be acceptable to Supervisors. “One? Ten? No loss is acceptable.” She then stated that her property has declined already because of the pending project. “It scares me to know that 450-foot-tall turbines will be built next door.”
ECM editor Miriam Raftery spoke against the Tule Wind project, cautioning that campers could be trapped if a fire occurs in McCain Valley, blocking the only exit on a long road miles from the camp sites. She also pointed out that besides many fires caused by turbine malfunctions, the towering turbines also serve as lightning rods to attract lightning strikes in the fire-prone area.
Raftery noted that approving turbines on country-controlled land would certify the EIR for the entire project, removing a key barrier for construction on federal land.
She then informed Supervisors that a recent Interior Department Inspector General report has criticized the BLM sharply for its failure to provide adequate oversight of wind projects on public lands. She also gave evidence of BLM oversight lapses at the Ocotillo Express wind project now under construction, citing flooding, road widening to triple the allowable size, and other issues that East County Magazine’s photographers have documented.
Jacob grilled a spokesman from the San Diego Taxpayers Association who sang the praises of the cross-border transmission lines, claiming they would benefit ratepayers.
“What’s the cost per kilowatt hour of wind?” she asked. He said he didn’t know. “If you’re going to come to the Board on behalf of ratepayers, I’d at least expect you to know that,” she admonished.
Jacob blasted both projects as huge fire risks, noting that the EIR acknowledges high fire danger that can not be reliably mitigated. “The EIR is clear. We are flirting with disaster,” she concluded.
Tisdale waned the Board that supporting Tule Wind “opens you up for negligence. “ She said setbacks were not far enough for safety and blasted County Health’s report as “unethical.” That report inexplicably concluded that wind turbines don’t pose health hazards but left out prominent peer-reviewed information to the contrary. It also failed to mention the 60 Manzanita Indians now admitted into a health study because they believe their illnesses are caused by stray voltage from neighboring Kumeyaay Wind on the Campo reservation.
Jacob asked staff why the county’s Health Impact Study omitted the Manzanita Indians. “Was this just disregarded? Was it taken seriously?” she asked.
A staffer replied that “We found it was not significant,” with no explanation as to why.
“If I’m going to make a mistake, I’m going to err on the side of safety,” Jacob said.
The staffer acknowledged that some members of the Planning Commission had seemed “very concerned particularly regarding low frequency noise.” The Planning Commission had recommend that Supervisors reject the five turbines at Tule Wind.
To which Roberts interrupted, “I don’t want to haer from the Planning Commission,” a strange remark given that planners spent many months meticulously researching wind issues, even making visits to wind sites and meeting with community members.
David Secor, Democratic candidate for Congress running against Duncan Hunter, said SDG&E is “not a good corporate citizen. For the County to go along with this is like a woman who goes along with a well-dressed, good-looking man—Ted Bundy.” He asked Supervisors not to betray the public trust. “People expect you to do what’s right.”
Laurie Baker from Santee quoted from Afoot and Afield, a local hiking guide which lists McCain Valley as “some of the most wild, beautiful and serene” terriain left unspoiled in our county.
A columnist from the Daily Transcript spoke in favor of Tule Wind, noting that “half the counties” in the nation are in emergency states due to drought he attributes to global climate change.
Another speaker in favor pointed out the need to plan for increasing use of solar vehicles, which he estimated would use 1800 MW/day by 2020 locally. One 3 MW turbine would power an estimated 1,000 homes. Iberdola estimates the full project, if built, could power 60,000 homes.
Harley MacDonald from Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish utility company, noted that the project would generated an estimated $30 million in sales and use tax, $100 million in property tax and $1 million a year in landowners’ revenues.
She did not, however, offset those new revenues with lost property tax revenues that will likely occur at homes near the wind facility, or potential lost tourism dollars for the region.
The Iberdrola representative insisted that “turbines are compatible with the bulk and scale of the surrounding area.” She showed simulations of the panorama viewed from very ar away. That drew questions from Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, who asked, “How can these things be so invisible, virtual, when they are so large and so tall?”
Jacob raised her most serious concerns over fire, repeatedly. Staff explained Iberdrola’s mitigation plans, which include clearance around the turbine bases, cameras to sense arcing, sensors to shut off turbines, water tanks, an extinguishing agent in each nacelle, and three pickup trucks with 250 gallon water containers. Construction will be halted in red flag alerts as well.
Despite assurances from staff, Jacob warned, “This will impede firefighting efforst to a frightening degree. In a wind driven fire it is not going to stay in the backcountry. We must not roll the dice….This region has options that are not going to threaten lives and property,” she said, calling for rooftop solar as a more viable option.
She added, “I believe this is the beginning, if approved, of industrialization of our backcountry…We did not designate this backcountry land as industrial.” She also voiced concerns over noise, groundwater, and cultural resources particularly with more than 400 turbines proposed at various East County locations.
“The cumulative impact cries out for the need for a master energy plan,” Jacob asked again.
But the three male members of the Board ignored East County’s Supervisor and voted to approve both projects regardless of the risks of which they were strongly warned.
Supervisor Cox rationalized his vote on Tule Wind this way. “I have no problem voting for the five turbines since they will be surrounded by BLM land,” he said, apparently rationalizing that if BLM erred in approving turbines in the wilderness, two wrongs must make a right.
At the state and federal levels, the push for wind energy has been fueled by alarm over climate change and a belief that drastic steps are needed. But Horn made no pretext about justifying his support based on any such idealism.
“I’m opposed to green energy….I don’t think the Department of Energy should be putting subsidies on these, “ he said, then added that the state’s renewable energy mandate made the project necessary.
The Supervisors who voted in favor gave no reason as to why they refused to consider an energy policy that could focus on less destructive alternatives such as rooftop solar, which has dropped in price to a fraction of pricing just a couple of years ago. Nor did they offer the slightest iota of a rationale for approving approve power lines to make our region dependent on Mexican wind power.
After the vote, Maxwell sent a blistering email to Supervisors Bill Horn, Greg Cox and Chairman Ron Roberts, which voiced the sentiments of many in East County: “You will now be remembered as being responsible for the pointless destruction of more backcountry wilderness than anyone in San Diego history…The deepest shame on all of you.”