LIVERMORE – In what Alameda County officials are calling a historic milestone, the framework for the next 30 years of wind energy on the Altamont Pass has taken a step forward, with hopes it will help reduce deaths of birds, bats and other animals.
A county planning board on Wednesday certified the final program environmental impact report for Alameda County’s portion of the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area as well as conditional use permits for two of the largest repowering projects in the area’s history.
The document allows for a maximum of 450 megawatts of energy production and about 281 total turbines, provided wind energy companies adhere to strict conservation measures.
“It’s the beginning of a 30-year process,” said county planner Andrew Young. “It’s very big for the Altamont. It’s huge – it’s almost monumental.”
Begun in 2010, the 900-page report sets parameters for protecting golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and other raptor species. Wind companies will be required to place turbines in low-risk areas, mitigate for bird, bat and amphibian deaths, and apply for federal Eagle Take Permits requiring the retrofitting of power poles. They will also have to pay a penalty for raptor deaths, which could go to funding rehabilitation centers.
“It’s a pretty important step to being able to provide certainty to developers … and certainty to environmental groups that there will be mitigation,” said Alameda County Assistant Planning Director Sandi Rivera. “With this added conservation approach, it goes beyond your typical EIR or (California Environmental Quality Act) requirements.”
An advisory committee will monitor avian mortality rates for three years after the turbines are installed, with a public review after 10 years. Deaths exceeding the county’s threshold figures would trigger further operational actions, including seasonal shutdowns of turbines.
The Altamont Pass – one of the largest concentrations of wind farms in the country – is in the midst of a major decommission of about 4,000 older generation turbines in an effort to reduce the thousands of bird and bat deaths caused annually by windmill impacts.
A 2007 settlement between Alameda County, windfarm operators, the Golden Gate Audubon Society and Californians For Renewable Energy sparked agreements with NextEra Energy Resources to repower or replace old turbines by 2015. Existing permits were extended in 2005, with conditions requiring operators to repower with fewer and more efficient turbines by 2018.
The programmatic environmental report concludes continued wind energy on the Altamont Pass will have “significant unavoidable impacts” to wildlife. However, county officials and environmental groups said they expect the new measures, coupled with larger turbines in the next generation, will make Altamont less deadly to birds and other animals in the future.
Audubon California policy director Mike Lynes said the group is supportive of repowering efforts in the Altamont and will continue to ensure the county and wind companies take the proper steps to reduce impacts to birds.
“We want to see those old turbines taken out and we want to see new turbines put in that can provide renewable energy,” Lynes said. “But as new turbines are put in, we want to make sure they’re well-sited and the impacts to local bird populations are fully mitigated. We think the programmatic EIR is a good step in that direction, and now it really is a matter of how it’s implemented.”
In addition to certifying the landmark report, the board also approved permits for two major wind projects.
NextEra Energy Resources’ $180 million Golden Hills Project will see the installation of 48 wind turbines, generating 86-megawatts of wind energy across roughly 7 square miles. The project will replace 775 existing turbines and is expected to be constructed by late 2015.
“We’re going to see a drastic increase in energy output, just on a smaller footprint,” said NextEra project developer Daryl Hart.
The other project, EDF Renewable Energy’s Patterson Pass Wind Project, will generate close to 20 megawatts of energy with 7 to 12 turbines, which could exceed 500 feet in height. The turbines will be placed on the north side of Patterson Pass Road and cover about one-and-a-half square miles.
The combined projects represent the first repowering on the Alameda County portion of the Altamont since 2003, and are the largest in terms of energy generation in the history of the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, Young said.
Buildout of the repowered windfarms is expected to take place over the next four years. Other projects planned for the next several years include the 80-megawatt Mulqueeney Ranch project by Brookfield Renewable, a 95-megawatt project by Altamont Winds, and Ogin Inc.’s Sand Hill Wind Project, a 4-megawatt test of “shrouded” turbines with the potential for 30 more megawatts added later.
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