December 27, 2013

Officials call for broader, updated look at safeguarding Altamont raptors

The Independent | Friday, December 27, 2013 |

Alameda County zoning officials are calling for a broader view that would help to determine how Altamont bird deaths from wind turbine towers will be evaluated and how new solutions can be recommended.

The call came from Larry Gosselin and Jon Harvey, members of the three-person East County Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA), which met Dec. 19 in Pleasanton.

The BZA conducted a public hearing on a draft EIR for a proposal by Sand Hill Wind Inc. to replace 79 conventional turbines with 40 newly designed “shrouded” wind turbines. Draft EIR comments closed Dec. 23.

The applicant did not speak at the meeting. However, Peter Pawlowski, director of business development for Ogin, which created the shrouded turbines, said that the firm’s product will help reduce raptor deaths in the Altamont.

Ogin’s brand-new turbine design is based on principles used in the design of a jet-propulsion engine, but applied differently. The shroud comprises a dual-circle arrangement around the perimeter of the three-bladed mechanism.

The design can double the speed of the wind that blows into the blades, increasing power efficiency. That efficiency allows Ogin to build smaller towers than can deliver as many or more kilowatts than the competition.

The towers are lower than 200 feet. By comparison, new conventional three-bladed towers currently installed in the Altamont are more than 400 feet tall. Because the towers are smaller, their blade sweep is smaller, which is important in saving birds.

Ogin has installed one tower in Boston and one in southern California. The firm looks at the Altamont as an opportunity to obtain good statistical data in a much-studied area, said Pawlowski.

A report on goals proposed by Sand Hill leaves golden eagle deaths at 100 percent of the baseline – in other words, no change. By comparison, Sand Hill proposes 30 percent of the baseline for the American Kestrel, 25 percent for the burrowing owl, and 50 percent for the red-tailed hawk.

At the public hearing, Juan Pablo Galván, land use planner for Save Mount Diablo, read short excerpts from an 11-page letter commenting on the EIR.

Galván said that the applicant’s proposed standards say that the firm won’t proceed with further repowering beyond the 40 turbines. However, unless the targets are met for avian deaths and documented by the county in those 40, there is no explicit assurance that “absolutely no” wind turbine construction on the remaining properties will be blocked until there is conformity to those goals, he said.

If the 40 turbines in the first phase turn out not to yield important reductions in bird deaths, especially for golden eagles, the county should reduce the numbers of turbines allowed for Ogin in the remainder of the Altamont. He suggested an 80 percent reduction from the 320 or so old turbines, instead of the approximately 1:1 ratio now in the wings for Sand Hill.

Gosselin and Harvey said that they are concerned about having enough data to judge the merits of the application and of future applications.

Gosselin said that information is becoming outdated from previous surveys of the Altamont, which is about a decade old. A draft of an update by Shawn Smallwood, a member of the Scientific Review Committee, has provided the county with scientific information about the Altamont birds.

Gosselin emphasized the tentative nature of Smallwood’s draft, and wondered whether it alone could serve as a base for establishment of new protocols in placing turbines. Harvey and board member Jim Goff also said that a one-year study is not enough information to establish a base to use to make good decisions.

Gosselin talked about obtaining enough information for a fresher, wider look at better ways, including new technology, to save Altamont birds. He talked about radar that now can detect the patterns of birds flying toward windmills. There are also braking mechanisms that can stop the blades when the birds fly near.

It might be possible for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and private industry to become involved in the knowledge pool concerning technology that can help save birds, said Gosselin.

As a start toward more information, the county could sponsor public forums independently of the BZA to solicit comments about problems that they see in the Altamont, and how they might be solved, said Gosselin.

The workshops could bring the BZA new insights into the current Sand Hill application, and its future potential requests for 300 more shrouded machines to replace about 320 old-style towers.

“I don’t see it (workshops) as slowing down the decision-making process, but as meeting our obligation. We need more information concerning better monitoring,” said Gosselin.

The 300 replacement towers that Sand Hill talks about eventually adding would produce up to 30 megawatts (MW) of power, and bring the whole repowering to 34 MW. A megawatt equals 1 million watts.

Gosselin said it’s doubtful that a broader vision for BZA would have much impact on Sand Hill, since its permits were approved a decade ago. The only issue now before the BZA is the repowering application for the 40 turbines, and the conditions to be attached those turbines.

Staff said that there is some flexibility on changing regulation of the Sand Hill conditional use permit, but not much. The county could add an addendum, or a supplemental EIR to the current EIR, but it is doubtful that much wider scope could be included in the EIR.

Gosselin said it is important for BZA to continue to set policy in a forward-looking way, even if there were not much impact on renewals of existing permits.

The county needs to improve the methods it uses to impose mitigations, said Gosselin. “I am not saying what the direction should be, but information is available. It should be an option for consideration. We are looking at decisions that go well into the future,” said Gosselin.

Without a deep, new look at the subject, “we’ll get locked into a trap. We’ll see a glacial progression of mitigation strategies that are enacted from decisions of this board over the next three months. I don’t want to be locked in. I don’t

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