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Operator seeks phase-out changes of Altamont wind turbines

Altamont Winds, Inc. (AWI), which operates 828 old wind turbines in the Altamont, is seeking a change in the schedule for their phase-out.

AWI intends to remove, and eventually replace old turbines with taller towers that have broader, slower blades, which give birds a better chance to evade them. Hundreds of predator birds, some from threatened species, are killed annually by Altamont turbines.

The company is asking to eliminate the September deadline for this year’s scheduled phase-out by postponing it until 2015, which is the deadline for the next step of wind turbine phase-out.

Opponents say that the postponement would result in additional bird deaths.

AWI has not put up any new turbines, because it does not have a new contract with a power company to purchase power in the future. However, the company is working on a contract, said AWI president Rick Koebbe.

Koebbe, who founded AWI 15 years ago, addressed members of the East County Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) at a discussion-only meeting June 27 in Pleasanton about the change the firm wants.

The AWI proposal would bring the project to generation of 193 megawatts of power, if the turbines were operated at full capacity, and not shut down between Nov. 1 and Feb. 15 each year, as is presently required.

All firms operating in the Altamont are subject to the winter shutdown. It is a time when there is less wind and lower power demand on the electricity grid. AWI operates about 25 percent of the turbines in the Altamont.

AWI has removed 10 percent of its original total of 920 turbines. According to a schedule imposed by the county, another 25 percent of the original total is supposed to be taken out of commission by Sept. 30 of this year, which would bring the cumulative total removed to 35 percent.

The remainder of the schedule requires taking down another 50 percent by Sept. 30, 2015, bringing the cumulative total to 85 percent. The remaining 15 percent would be gone by Sept. 22, 2018, the 13th anniversary of the lawsuit settlement that created the policing that requires replacement of the old turbines.

Koebbe is asking to eliminate the September deadline for this year’s scheduled phase-out by postponing it until 2015, which is the deadline for the next step of wind turbine phase-out.

To balance out the requested delay, Koebbe would speed up the phase-out of the last 15 percent, which is due for elimination in 2018, by also ending that group of turbines in 2015. By September 2015, 100 percent of the towers would be gone.

Koebbe said that time-shifting would amount to having the same running time as the current county-mandated schedule.

Koebbe said that the winter shutdowns have cost his firm 6 percent annually, and has hurt the beneficial effects on society that are provided by the turbines. He added that the whole Altamont project over the past 20 years has saved the atmosphere from 1 billion pounds of pollution annually.

Most of the pollution reduction benefited in the Bay Area, because gas-fired power plants in the region did not have to produce that power, said Koebbe.

In turn, less pollution has saved the lives of both animal species and humans, said Koebbe. He said that scientists reported that the Altamont has saved the lives of 45,000 birds over 20 years because of healthier air, with less carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Koebbe said that his own project has shown a net savings of 7400 of those birds.

Koebbe told the BZA, “More birds are saved with wind power than are saved by shutting down the Altamont wind power. That’s the conclusion from the data. We ask you to change the schedule to meet our best time to operate through this year until 2015.”


Three other speakers at the meeting opposed any changes to the schedule. Rich Cimino, conservation chair of the Ohlone Chapter of the Audubon Society, said more will be known once the special Scientific Review Committee weighs in with its analysis of the data.

What is known for certain, because of a study of golden eagles in eastern Alameda County, is that their population is down from the 1988 level, said Cimino. At the time of the study, 198 pairs of golden eagles were living in East County. That figure is now down to 84 pairs, said Cimino.

There is no way to band golden eagles so that anyone can learn whether there is or will be any golden eagle migration into East County where the birds would take up residence, said Cimino.

Doug Bell, wildlife biologist for EBRPD, confirmed Cimino’s statements. He said, “The golden eagle population in the Altamont pass itself cannot produce enough young to compensate for the eagle mortality there over time.”

Any action that would change the schedule for removal of the old wind power towers, and prolong their use, “would contribute to higher death rates” for the eagles,” said Bell.

Bob Cooper, a Dyer Road resident who lives near wind-power towers, said that he was “a little taken aback” by Koebbe’s comments that the old turbines’ operation “were good for birds.” Cooper said that he has picked up two injured eagles on his property. He took one to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, but they could not save it, he said.

Andrew Young, the Alameda County planner who has been working on Altamont re-powering since 2005, told The Independent that a final draft EIR on the AWI request should be available either this week or next week.

Young said the staff plans to schedule a decision on the AWI request for the BZA meeting at 1:30 p.m. July 18, at the Pleasanton City Council chamber.