A battle that pits union jobs against the lives of thousands of birds is playing out in the scenic hills of the Altamont Pass, where a wind power company operates hundreds of turbines that environmentalists say are outdated and kill protected species.
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors must decide Tuesday whether to give Altamont Winds Inc. permission to continue its 828-turbine operation despite the company’s failure to meet two deadlines to “repower” its fleet with high-efficiency turbines that bird advocates applaud.
The new turbines would be less deadly because Altamont Winds would need fewer of them to create the same amount of power, and because they could be placed outside the birds’ flight paths. Birds would still crash into the spinning propellers, but the carnage could be vastly mitigated.
While environmentalists accuse Altamont Winds of dragging its heels, the company’s supporters counter that such massive restructuring is costly, and not easy for a small business.
“They’re not a big multinational that can shut down and move resources quickly,” said Andreas Cluver, secretary-treasurer of Alameda County’s Building and Construction Trades Council, an affiliate of which has invested pension funds in Altamont Winds. To him, the importance of sustaining a “good, local, socially responsible, union company” overrides the environmental concerns presented by the turbines.
“Careers are at stake here,” he said. The company employs 40 people at Altamont and five people in Idaho.
Representatives from Altamont Winds could not be reached for comment, but Cluver believes that if county supervisors clamp down, the company might have to shut its doors. And in that case, its wind rights could be passed on to a different player that isn’t committed to hiring union labor.
He says that Altamont Winds will do everything possible to save the birds. But to him, preserving “good, middle-class jobs” is more urgent.
Michael Lynes, director of public policy for Audubon California, says Altamont Winds is just kicking the can down the road. Other companies began replacing their fleets in 2007, as part of a county settlement with five Audubon chapters. Altamont Winds was the lone holdout. It cut a separate deal in 2005 to phase out 25 percent of its old turbines by 2013, but when the deadline came, it secured a two-year extension.
Now it’s pushing for an additional three years. If county supervisors comply, Lynes says, then the turbine improvements might never happen.
“If you were a businessperson, and you got another extension this year, then why wouldn’t you think to just come back in (2018) and ask for another one?” he asked, adding that the same job arguments will apply three years from now.
And in the meantime, he says, birds keep getting bludgeoned by the turbines.
Deadly wind power
The battle over the birds touches on thorny environmental issues, as California makes a push toward using more renewable energy in the coming decades. One of Altamont Winds’ competitors, a company called NextEra Energy, made a splash earlier this year when it sold 43 megawatts of power to Google.
Some bird advocates worry that enthusiasm about wind power will lead its boosters to downplay the environmental costs.
“I hate to say this, but there’s no such thing as ‘green energy,’” says Doug Bell, a wildlife program manager for the East Bay Regional Park District who’s witnessed the deaths of hawks, owls, falcons, meadowlarks, robins and golden eagles. He and other environmentalists blame wind turbines for 10,000 bird deaths per year.
Yet Lynes says there are ways to reduce the damage.
NextEra and another company, EDF Renewable Energy, are currently repowering their fleets. According to Lynes, a single 1.5 megawatt turbine could do as much work as 20 of its older counterparts, and it could be placed in an area that wouldn’t endanger birds.
Repowering is an expensive process, Lynes acknowledges. And Cluver says it’s unfair to hold a small company like Altamont Winds to the same standards as its larger peers.
Those arguments evidently found favor with the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments – a commission that handles planning and permitting – which granted Altamont Winds an extension in 2013 on the condition that it shut down all of its turbines by 2015.
In February, the board rejected Altamont Winds’ request for another grace period. Altamont Winds appealed, and the county supervisors will decide the matter on Tuesday. Audubon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a slew of other groups have vociferously opposed the extension. Lynes argued in a letter to county supervisors that dismantling the company’s 828-turbine fleet would create jobs in the short term rather than in three years.