OAKLAND – A controversial extension of wind turbine permits on the Altamont Pass, which opponents claim could kill hundreds of birds of prey over the next three years, is scheduled to head to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Supervisors will hear an appeal by Altamont Winds, Inc. (AWI), the area’s second largest wind turbine operator, to extend permits on its 828 older-generation windmills until 2018. Nearly all of them date back at least 20 years, county planners said.
If approved, according to Audubon California, the three-year extension would cause the deaths of about 1,600 birds, including up to 330 raptors – golden eagles, burrowing owls, American kestrels and red-tailed hawks – based on projections in county environmental impact reports.
Not only would birds be affected, said Audubon California’s director of public policy Mike Lynes, but an extension also would delay repowering – a large-scale phaseout of older turbines with newer technology considered safer for birds.
“We always know that turbines are going to have impacts, but for well over a decade we’ve been working with the county and the other wind companies toward repowering,” Lynes said. “While we understand the difficulties of business, at some point (Altamont Winds) has to take responsibility for its own bad planning. There shouldn’t be an extension which allows it to continue to reap what I gather are considerable profits while killing more birds.”
The county’s portion of the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, a 14,000-plus-acre zone between Livermore and Tracy, is in the midst of a major decommissioning of old turbines, with companies such as NextEra Energy and EDF Renewable Energy making strides toward repowering with larger, more bird-friendly turbines. In 2007, the wind companies, Alameda County, and several environmental groups settled a lawsuit and agreed to cut bird deaths in half and repower by 2015. Altamont Winds did not participate in the agreement.
As a small business based in Alameda County, Altamont Winds needs to operate at full capacity over the next three years to afford its own repowering project, company officials say.
“We’re working on various permits and studies and we need another extension of our permits to get all that repowering done,” said company President Rick Koebbe. “The revenues from operations will be used to fund our efforts, because it’s very expensive.”
Koebbe said Altamont Winds has spent more than $1 million on repowering so far and is on track to begin construction in 2018.
In 2013, the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments agreed to allow Altamont Winds to continue operating all of its old turbines on the condition it would shut them down completely by Oct. 31, 2015. The company requested an extension in 2014.
The zoning board unanimously rejected the request on Feb. 2. Altamont Winds appealed, citing significant benefits to climate, the environment, and the local economy through property taxes, rent proceeds for landowners, and permitting costs.
By reducing greenhouse gases, according to Koebbe, an extension would prevent more than 950 bird deaths from air pollution, resulting in a “net benefit” for birds.
“We’re fully mitigating all the impacts so that’s why we think the project should be approved,” Koebbe said.
The county’s planning department is recommending supervisors uphold the zoning board’s denial, unless circumstances warrant a short-term extension of one year to 18 months while the company works on repowering entitlements and funding.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is opposing the extension, claiming that 31 golden eagle fatalities have been recorded at Altamont Winds’ facilities since 2010. In a letter to supervisors, the agency said an extension would likely result in more eagle deaths, increase the company’s liability, and could subject the county to increased scrutiny.
The state Attorney General’s Office also is against a permit extension, stating an approval would “create serious inequalities for other turbine operators and will undercut current efforts to repower.”