March 25, 2015

Despite bird deaths, electric wind farm wins extension

By Doug Oakley | 03/24/2015 |

OAKLAND – An electric wind turbine company at the Altamont Pass can continue running 828 older generation windmills until 2018 despite estimates they will kill an estimated 1,600 birds during that time, following a 3-2 vote by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The board overrode a vote of the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments to deny Altamont Winds, Inc., the right to run the older windmills. It also went against its own staff recommendation, the wishes of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Attorney General’s office, Audubon California and others.

Those opposing the permit extension for the company argued that the older wind turbines are killing too many birds. But Altamont Winds argued rodent poison and other factors are killing more birds than people think.

“There is a significant amount of unknown bird death reasons,” said Altamont Winds President Rick Koebbe, who added that if his permits were revoked, his company would go out of business.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said 31 golden eagles have been killed by Altamont Winds’ turbines 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 subject the county to increased scrutiny.

And a statement from the state Attorney General’s office said a permit extension would “create serious inequalities for other turbine operators and will undercut current efforts to repower.”

But County Supervisor Nate Miley said he was not convinced.

“What people are saying is Altamont Winds is responsible for avian mortalities,” Miley said. “I find that incredulous. Even when the turbines are turned off, the birds are still dying. I don’t understand why folks are putting all that responsibility on them. It baffles me. I don’t understand why people want to put this company out of business.”

County planners say the company’s turbines are at least 20 years old and that newer windmills, which are taller and more out of the bird flyway, will kill fewer birds. Just one newer model turbine can produce the same amount of electricity as 18 to 20 older ones, industry representatives say.

Audubon California estimated a three-year extension of the permits would kill up 1,600 birds, including golden eagles, burrowing owls, American kestrels and red-tailed hawks.

Cindy Margulis, executive director of Golden Gate Audubon Society, argued against giving the company more time to swap its older turbines for newer ones.

“We believe it is possible to do wind power properly, and the time has come to end this 1980s technology in the middle of the Bay Area,” Margulis said. “It means a huge net gain for jobs in Alameda County when you take 828 old turbines and build new ones. You need all kinds of people for that.”

According to an agreement with Altamont Winds and Alameda County, the company was supposed to have finished the job by Oct. 31 of this year.

“We knew there was a possibility we couldn’t get everything done because of all the variables,” Koebbe said.

Alameda County’s portion of the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, a 14,000 acre area 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 progress on replacing old turbines with new ones. In 2007, the wind companies, Alameda County and several environmental groups settled a lawsuit and agreed to cut bird deaths in half and replace turbines by 2015.

Altamont Winds did not participate in the agreement.

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.

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