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Los Angeles Times misses the full story on wind

The Los Angeles Times today published an editorial sympathizing with the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) regarding the relative lack of development zones suitable for wind energy in California’s desert. CalWEA believes the planning process for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) – which will identify areas where land management and wildlife officials believe utility-scale renewable energy development is appropriate in the California Desert District – favors solar over wind.

CalWEA and the Los Angeles Times fail to acknowledge that wind turbines already cover vast swaths of our desert. In California’s San Gorgonio Pass, 3,000 wind turbines have transformed over 20 square miles of desert and foothills into an industrial zone. In the Tehachapi area, the industry has developed over 50 square miles into a wind energy zone hosting hundreds of wind turbines. One of the largest wind projects in the country is located in the Mojave Desert near Tehachapi.

Another flaw is CalWEA’s expectation of parity with solar. Wind resources simply are not as abundant in the desert as solar resources. This ain’t Kansas, where much of the land receives “good” or better wind speeds, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Compare NREL wind resource maps for Kansas and California, and “good” areas cover only a small slice of the California desert – and usually where there are already hundreds of turbines. And where there are wind resources in the desert that have not been tapped, there tend to be cherished wildlife and beautiful landscapes that the public has deemed important enough to protect. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 specifically created the California Desert Conservation Area to protect these resources, recognizing the burden of a growing human population.

What would CalWEA like to see in the DRECP? Maps submitted by CalWEA to the DRECP planners in 2012 request the plan to include wind resource areas totalling 2.6 million acres – over 4,062 square miles – of mostly pristine desert; turbines would be visible from anywhere within nearly two-thirds of the California desert. The DRECP alternatives are not that far off from this number. Preliminary documents released in December already identify development focus areas that coincide with a healthy portion of the “Priority Wind Resource Areas” that CalWEA is asking DRECP planners to support. One of the more destructive DRECP alternatives would provide the wind industry with over one million acres of development focus areas.

It is also worth noting that CalWEA’s standards for identifying “Priority Wind Resource Areas” are questionable. CalWEA simply identified lands where the estimated wind speed is typically greater than six meters per second, but it is not clear how accurate the estimates are, nor how consistent the winds would be to generate reliable power. Notice that one priority wind resource area on the map above includes the now-operational Ocotillo Express Wind project. The Ocotillo Wind project is notorious for turbines that rarely spin, meaning that nearly 16 square miles of the Colorado desert region south of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was industrialized for a project that probably does not live up to its promised generation capacity.

The Los Angeles Times got one thing right in its editorial – we need more clean energy. But instead of forking over more intact desert ecosystem to an insatiable industry, perhaps we can look to smarter alternatives. For starters, many of the turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass are older generation technology. They could be replaced with newer turbines that generate more energy. Also, Los Angeles was on to a good thing when it opened up its feed-in-tariff to generate local clean energy by placing solar panels on rooftops and parking lots. Industrializing the desert may be the quickest way for CalWEA to make money, but it is not the most sustainable way for us to generate clean energy.