Amid talks about hazards for birds and benefits of renewable energy, a commercial wind farm planned for land south of Lompoc received Santa Barbara County Planning Commission approval on Wednesday.
The commission voted unanimously to approve the Strauss Wind Energy Project, proposed by an affiliate of BayWar r.e. Global, a renewable energy firm based in Germany.
“Generally speaking, my heart is pulling me one way and my brain’s pulling me in another,” said Chairman John Parke, who represents the Third District and called it “a spectacular site” for its biological resources and potential for generating wind energy.
Commissioner Larry Ferini agreed, saying there were parts of the project he liked and other aspects he didn’t.
“The bottom line with me is we shouldn’t be telling other landowners, our neighbors, we shouldn’t be denying the use of their property either,” Ferini said.
The Strauss project involves 29 wind turbines, many standing 492 feet tall, on nearly 3,000 acres off San Miguelito Road, the same site as the approved-but-never-built Lompoc Wind Energy Project 10 years ago.
However, Strauss sought to install larger and fewer wind tower generators compared to the prior project.
The plan also includes building a 5,000-square-foot operations and maintenance building near the center of the site, installing a power substation on one acre with a 450-square-foot building, creating a 7.3 mile transmission line, modifying approximately 12 miles of existing roads, and building eight miles of new roads.
More recent modifications to the proposal mean a reduction in the number of oak trees slated for removal, dropping to 225 after previously topping 600.
“We are trying to reduce impacts and balance constraints while still being able to deliver clean renewable energy to the county,” said Daniel Duke, vice president of development for BayWa.
Several speakers, some representing more than two dozen organizations, called for commissioners to approve the renewable energy project that would provide millions in tax revenue to the county.
“Santa Barbara County has some of the lowest utility-scale renewable energy production in the state, and we need to do our part to help California meet our goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2045,” said Michael Chiacos from the Community Environmental Council.
The Strauss project would generate enough power to to supply about 43,000 homes with electricity annually.
“This will double our county’s renewable energy production,” Chiacos added.
Much of the discussion centered on the potential hazards to birds, with speakers from the Santa Barbara Audubon Society expressing worries about the deaths of birds and bats from striking turbines.
Four pairs of golden eagles live in the area, putting them at risk from turning turbines, according to ornithologist Mark Holmgren, who said a number of sensitive species exist in the area.
The turbine blades also will take a toll on migrating birds, he added.
“It is a systematized killing of an enormous number of birds. It is kill, kill, kill,” he said. “Those human residents outside Santa Barbara County that would protest this murderous action posed by this project don’t have a chance to comment on this EIR.” .
Others contended an environmental analysis of the project was inadequate and called for more studies on potential impacts to birds.
One condition imposed on Strauss will require data gathering for the 30-year life of the project. Another conditions sets thresholds for bird and bat fatalities that would trigger other measures such as modifying turbine operations, seasonally or selectively.
First District Commissioner Michael Cooney said he wanted to know the project’s impact on birds, suggesting a condition should be included to provide a review after the wind turbines begin operating.
Near the end of the hearing, the commissioners agreed to include a condition that would require a report at a Planning Commission hearing about the project’s toll on birds and bats.
“This does, in fact, provide a mechanism for keeping both the Planning Commission and the public in the process of the adaptive management goal of this project, and I think that’s a material improvement,” Cooney said.
BayWa representatives said they hope to begin construction in January so the wind farm can start operating before the end of 2020.
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