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Humboldt wind project faces tough scrutiny despite local goal of 100% renewable energy by 2025

For the second time in ten years, Humboldt County’s environmental community in coordination with neighborhood groups in the area hope to kill a wind power project proposed for Monument and Bear Ridge area south and west of Rio Dell in the most northerly part of California’s Lost Coast.

As an example, Friends of the Eel River’s Conservation Director, Scott Greacen, wrote recently,

While Friends of the Eel strongly believes that an accelerated transition to clean energy is needed to stem the worst impacts of climate change, infrastructure project siting is critical to a project’s suitability, and one of this size at this particular site could have dire impacts on imperiled wildlife and their habitat. You may remember that Shell Energy had a similar proposal for the same site many years ago that was withdrawn in the face of strong community opposition.

The potential of Earth’s temperature crisis to altogether eliminate endangered species juxtaposed with environmentalists resistance to green power’s impacts on the local environment underscores the complexity of transforming a global power grid from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources and takes the scope of the conversation out of Humboldt County alone and joins it to the global effort to maintain a livable planet.

The Project

Just under a year ago, Humboldt County’s Planning Department announced that an applicant, Humboldt Wind LLC, a subsidiary of Terra-Gen, had applied to build the Humboldt Wind Energy Project, and that Humboldt County would be the lead agency in the CEQA process which would include an Environmental Impact Report.

Since then, Terra-Gen has completed the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on its proposal to build as many as 60 turbines, with 500 foot rotors, along two coastal ridges southwest of Rio Dell, to produce a maximum 155MW (155,000 watts) of renewable power. This is nearly equal to PG&E’s natural gas generation station at King Salmon which can deliver up to 163MW of power.

As part of the CEQA process, on Tuesday, the 28th of May, Terra-Gen hosted an open house in Ferndale at the Old Steeple to speak with the community about their proposed project. About 50 people attended the open house. Humboldt local Natalynn DeLapp, who is serving as a local liaison for the Humboldt Wind Energy Project, led the meeting.

If built at its proposed scale, the project’s energy production will be equivalent to just over a third of the Humboldt County’s current demand for electric power. However, staff from Terra-Gen stated that the plans are adaptable to input from the public and therefore details may change as the CEQA process moves forward. Already the project may pull back from most or all of its Bear River Ridge footprint after objections about its intrusion into the “Cape Mendocino Grassland” which is an important repository for native grasses and is also highly populated bird territory.

According to its website, Terra-Gen is a renewable energy company producing 1.3 GW through wind, solar and geothermal sources in the western United States. Locally, work on its proposed Humboldt Wind Generation Project in Humboldt County has already produced a completed Draft Environmental Impact Report with a public comment deadline that ended on the 14th of June.

California Carbon Budget

Despite local concerns, wind power development fits into local, state and global frameworks for reducing carbon emissions as quickly as possible.

One reason such an obviously impactful project is moving so quickly is that despite local concerns, this project fits into the global imperative to reduce GHG which the State has a developed policy framework to meet stated goals on a schedule.

After the Kyoto Protocol on climate went into effect in 2005, California passed AB 32 in 2006 which began California’s process of setting goals to reduce its to decrease its carbon footprint. Currently, California’s goals are to cut its 1990 GHG footprint 40% by 2030 through a variety of strategies including increasing the percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources to 50% and reducing its reliance on fossil fuels for transportation by 50%. Currently, California releases approximately 360 mmt (million metric tons) of CO2 annually. This accounts for about 7% of the U.S. national emissions.

California’s electric generation creates 16% of California’s current GHG emissions.

Humboldt County, under direction from the State of California, began its own Climate Action Plan in 2012. The County is developing its strategy to reduce local emissions as identified in the 2015 GHG inventory. The County is currently holding a set of public input meetings to identify strategies for meeting its identified goals for reducing GHG and increasing alternative energy production.

Humboldt’s Energy Island

At the public meeting in Ferndale, in addition to learning about the scope and intention of the project, the audience also learned that Humboldt County has been identified as a premier location for generating wind power. The sustained wind over the ridges of the Lost Coast results in a 30% increase in power generation over the same turbine sited in another location.

Natalynn Delapp also told the audience while explaining the purpose of the project last Tuesday that Humboldt County is an “energy island.”

According to a 2011 report by HSU’s Schatz Energy Research Center entitled Humboldt County as a Renewable Energy Secure Community, and echoed in the Humboldt Wind DEIR, Humboldt County’s connection to the power grid is as tenuous as its connection to fibre optics. Humboldt County has one small natural gas line and two electric lines coming in from the Central Valley. According to the Schatz inventory,

[T]he total electrical transmission capacity into Humboldt County through the existing lines is 60-70 MW, less than half of Humboldt County’s peak demand. therefor local electrical generators are critical to meeting local electricity needs.

However, with energy, the isolation is less of a problem because Humboldt County can produce most of the electrical power it needs locally, although there are vulnerabilities. The three biomass plants at Scotia, Fairhaven and Blue Lake provide 18, 9, and 7% of Humboldt County’s electric generation for a total of 34%. 5% is generated by hydropower. As of 2012, less than a tenth of 1% of the local electric demand was being met through solar power. The natural gas generation station at King’s Salmon produces 60% of the local demand, and the Schatz report estimated PG&E gets only about 11% its natural gas from local gas fields.

And notably, Humboldt County’s own supply of natural gas has diminished by half since its 1992 peak. Without increased production through fracturing, Humboldt County is reliant on a single underground natural gas line from the Central Valley for the natural gas it needs to produce its current electricity demand.

Vadjos, the Terr-Gen Development Director, said one direct benefit to the Humboldt County community, and northern California as well, is that state law mandates that before Humboldt Wind can tie into the grid, Terr-Gen has to work with the Independent Service Operator (ISO) to determine the grid’s capacity to accept the power Humboldt Wind will produce. Terr-Gen will have to fund the needed upgrades which will ultimately lead to Humboldt County being somewhat less isolated on the grid.

Purchasers vs. Users

At the town hall in Ferndale, one woman was especially troubled by the fact that a community or business outside the area may purchase Humboldt Wind’s power.

Questions arise about who will benefit from the power generated on Monument Ridge. The Humboldt Wind project may produce an amount of energy roughly equal to a third of Humboldt county’s current demand, and Natalynne Delapp said, “Humboldt County would be where the energy would be used. That’s the physics of energy movement. Then there is the politics of who purchases the energy. Those are two different stories.”

The physics of energy are such that power gets pulled from the grid at the outlets closest to its production. However, towns or companies buy green power through a power purchase agreements in a competitive process, and they can buy rights to renewable energy credits of power that may be produced hundreds of miles away.

According to some, the economy for transitioning to renewable energy benefits from this financial competition to associate oneself with the greenest power possible. For example, a website called energysage.com describes the “premium” consumers pay when they enroll in a “green energy program” as going “toward funding the development of new renewable energy projects.”

Vajdos agreed in part, but also pushed back on that point. He said, “Ratepayers are a primary beneficiary of increased competition among energy producers.” He explained that the local community aggregator, Redwood Community Energy Authority (RCEA) is in negotiations with three green energy projects. Humboldt Wind is one of them. Vajdos explained that any of the 3 projects being considered will lead to lower costs for RCEA, and therefor the ratepayer, than their current sources of power. Vajdos continued, “If we cannot remain competitive with “brown power” as well as other renewable power producers, we will not be in business.”

Complex Environmental Issues

Meanwhile, the complex issues of a centralized power grid and solving environmental problems through increased infrastructure are worrisome. This subtle issue is being pointed out locally and globally. One reason the climate crisis has come into sharper focus over the past two years is teenage Greta Thunberg from Sweden. Thunberg, who has spoken eloquently at climate summits, United Nations gatherings, the European Union and the British Parliament, continues to remind global leaders, ‘We want to build our way out of a crisis created by buying and building things.”

Locally that idea was mirrored by Monday Morning Magazine co-host Jeff Hedin who said, “I am deeply concerned about Climate Change which is really caused by humans having an inappropriate relationship with the planet as a whole. We are trying to find technological solution to a behavioral problem.” And it is reflected in the impacts that the identified solution to global climate crisis may have on the problems of local environmental degradation and causes local environmentalists to balk.

During the Ferndale meeting, several objections emerged from the audience including bird mortality especially for endangered species and raptors like eagles, murralet and osprey, and clear cutting to make way for transmission lines and maintenance roads right through the heart of the Maxxam history.


Birds, including raptors, are killed by the turbine blades, trees will be cut to make way for transmission lines, and roads are more fully developed to site and then to maintain the turbines.

Gen-Terra’s Sr Biologist, Yasmine Akky, said she estimates only 10 Marbled Murrelet will be killed by the project over the 30 year life of the project. Kevin Martin, Gen-Terra’s Director of Permit Planning, explained they are able to keep bird mortality rates much lower now than in the early years of wind power due to increased understanding of appropriate placement of the equipment on the landscape and through improving technology. Martin explained that their Alta Wind Generation Center in the Tehachapee pass, an 800 turbine wind farm shares airspace with the extremely endangered California Condors. Gen-Terra, according to Martin, invested in GPS tracking technology for the Condors, and said Gen-Terra gave that technology to the CDFW for their use in studying and protecting the extremely endangered birds in exchange for the right to also track the location of the Condors. Martin says Alta Wind staff is then able to shut down turbines when the condor come into the area.

Martin also said ornithologists continue to research and develop technology using sound and light to deter birds and bats from coming into contact with the turbines.

The Audubon Society’s mission is “to protect the birds and the places they need for today and tomorrow.” Audubon Magazine published an article on the Tehachapee Project entitled How New Technology is Making Wind Farms Safer for Birds which featured an interview with Kevin Martin in its Spring 2018 edition. At the end of the story the editors included the following statement regarding the dangers to birds from wind farms

After Audubon released its ‘2014 Birds and Climate Change report,’ which showed that climate change will threaten more than half of North America’s birds if we don’t rapidly reduce emissions, it became abundantly clear that the organization needed to focus more on expediting properly sited renewable energy. Audubon’s goal is to ensure that 50 percent of America’s energy comes from renewable sources by 2030…..

Trees and the Carbon Budget

At that meeting in Ferndale, one member of the audience repeatedly stated that the project will never be net zero for GHG because the need to cut trees means an ongoing loss of carbon sequestration.

The DEIR addresses the GHG equation of the proposed project. The production, shipping and construction of the project and its components will all consume fossil fuels producing a total of 2,400MT of GHG, which averages to under 157MT a year for the life of the project.. Until more of our national energy needs are met by renewable sources, the ongoing maintenance of the project will result in 89MT of GHG emissions. And the replacement of 170 acres of forest with electric transmission lines further cuts into the net GHG budget. The DEIR calculates all these emissions, and losses in sequestration, and is calculated to reduce GHG emissions by up to 174,000 MT every year for 30 years.

The primary need for forest removal comes from the plans proposal to cut in a new easement for the transmission line from Scotia running 23 miles east over Humboldt Redwood Company land to a substation in Bridgeville. If built as currently planned, the 100 foot wide clearing to accommodate the lines, will amount to about 170 acres. There will be another 30 acres of logging to widen the roads needed to access the wind turbines.

Nathan Vajdos, Terr-Gen’s Development Director, explained in a phone interview that he is “responsible for every aspect of the project.” He also explained that the new easement is needed because PG&E has the existing exclusive easement to the Bridgeville substation. Vajdos described the Bridgeville substation as the “only place in the grid, regionally, that has the capacity for the tie-in.” He went on to defend exclusive easements. Vajdos said, that increasing the number of power lines on the easement would make it necessary to widen it due to the way power interacts on lines that are in close physical proximity to one another.

Community Pros and Cons

In Ferndale, De Lapp explained that, unlike the previously proposed Shell wind project, access to the Humboldt Wind project area will have minimal impact on the cities of Rio Dell and Ferndale. An old logging road at Jordon Creek Demonstration Forest, at the northernmost end of the Avenue of the Giants, will be revamped to become the primary access road. Both Wildcat and Monument Roads will only be used in case of an emergency according to the DEIR.

During her presentation, DeLapp said that in addition to the year long construction phase employment, and the 15 jobs for a permanent energy production crew, the Humboldt Wind Energy Project will become the highest county tax paying entity, second only to Humboldt Redwood Company itself.

Before the meeting began and after it ended, conversations with people who attended revealed a wide range of opinions. One woman said her neighbor had asked her to sign a petition against the Humboldt Wind project, but she had refused because she feels wind generated power will be a benefit to the community. A man said he was both optimistic and pessimistic about the project. When queried about the reasons for his pessimism, he said, “I really think [humans] are [ecologically] past the point of no return. We are probably walking dead.” Another man said he thinks that its important our community “take one for the team” in terms of the inconvenience and consequences of the project rather than buy power produced elsewhere since presumably it would be an equal inconvenience to the people in that location.

After the meeting, Martin answered some questions. One was how a small project isolated from Gen-Terra’s home operations in San Diego can be economically viable for the company. He said that the crew Gen-Terra ultimately hires will live in Humboldt County and will not be traveling from outside the area to work temporarily. And coincidentally, while we were talking, a local man asked for contacts to the human resources department as he outlined his qualifications in energy production. The permanent crew will be about 15 people who will live in Humboldt County.

The public comment period ended June 14th, but the DEIR can be found on the county’s webpage.

When asked about the quick pace of the project, Supervisor Estelle Fennell said opportunities for public input to the Humboldt Wind project will continue to be available through the planning process. She also said it meets a lot of criteria the County has been working toward with regard to climate action planning. Fennell predicted the Planning Commission will likely take the project up in July or August, then the Board of Supervisors when the Planning Commission process is complete.