A couple of goats scamper down San Miguelito Road as George Bedford slowly drives in the opposite direction. He says it’s not the first time he’s seen animals on this road, before pointing to a spot where he once passed a mountain lion. Only a few miles south of Lompoc, the area feels worlds away.
Bedford and his wife, Cheryl, purchased more than 400 acres of land on top of one of the hills surrounding San Miguelito Canyon in the early 1990s. With the land previously untouched, they had to build a private road leading up to their home, which sits at roughly 1,700 feet in elevation, before beginning construction.
Bedford says local regulations required the home’s roof to be a certain height, so as not to be seen protruding from the hillside. The Bedfords were also prohibited from removing oak trees while building the driveway, resulting in a windy road that follows an old cattle trail and takes almost 10 minutes to traverse.
“There would have been a lot easier ways to do this if we got rid of oak trees,” Bedford says while driving up to his home.
The Bedfords moved into the house in 2002. But now, almost 20 years later, they may be poised to sell the property as plans for a nearby wind energy project move through the permitting process. With the nearest turbine being only 2,000 feet from his home, Bedford says he doesn’t want to see the structure or hear its blades slicing through the air.
“[The county] put all sorts of restrictions on me when I was building a home,” Bedford says. “And now they are talking about putting 500-foot towers up here with rotating blades.”
Along with the quality-of-life concerns, he fears the potential wildfire risks associated with running a new overhead transmission line through the canyon, given the fires that have taken place in the state over the last few years—although those fires were mostly caused by older lines that needed to be replaced.
Bedford voiced his concerns at the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission’s Nov. 20 meeting when it approved permits for the Strauss Wind Energy Project. The project includes the construction of 29 wind turbines along ridges in San Miguelito Canyon ranging from 427 to 492 feet tall that will produce 98 megawatts of electricity per year, which is enough to power 43,000 homes.
Supporters of the project—such as Craig Lewis, the founder and executive director of Clean Coalition—said the project would more than double the amount of renewable energy produced in the county, which is behind on its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The county also produces less renewable energy than almost every other county in California.
“This project is a gift to Santa Barbara County,” Lewis said. “Hopefully the county will recognize that.”
But for Bedford and others who oppose the project, the amount of energy produced isn’t worth the environmental impacts, such as the removal of oak trees and the potential death of golden eagles and other birds. Bedford and two other parties appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of the project, which the county Board of Supervisors will discuss at its Jan. 28 meeting.
Bedford said he’s ready to fight this project for as long as he can while not ruling out potential legal challenges if the board moves the project forward.
“I have no problem with wind turbines,” Bedford said. “I just have a problem when they put them into a remote location like this.”
Supporters and opponents of the Strauss Wind Energy Project agree on one point: San Miguelito Canyon is unique.
Steve Ferry, a member of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society’s conservation committee and the group’s project leader on this development, said the canyon has one of the highest concentrations of raptors, such as hawks and eagles, in the county.
Ferry and other members of the Audubon Society spoke during the county Planning Commission’s meeting on Nov. 20, saying they were concerned about the potential number of birds that could die as a result of flying into the wind turbines. The group claims that the project’s design and proposed mitigation measures don’t do enough to protect wildlife, with one representative calling it “a systematized killing of an enormous number of birds.”
“I urge you to stand strong and call this project what it is: a huge and monstrous impact to the ecology of the area,” Audubon Society member Mark Holmgren said during the meeting.
Part of the county’s final environmental impact review for this project includes raptor survey data collected by Dudek, a Santa Barbara-based environmental consulting firm.
Over the course of 646 hours between April 2018 and August 2019, surveyors spotted a raptor 1,841 times in the area. More than 70 percent of those observations were of red-tailed hawks, while surveyors spotted a golden eagle 329 times. According to the environmental impact review, surveyors believe these observations represent a single family of golden eagles living in the area as well as other eagles occasionally flying near the site.
Golden eagles are a federally protected species, so the county is requiring BayWa—the project’s developer—to obtain a golden eagle take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prior to beginning construction. These permits allow developers to take—which in this instance means incidentally kill or wound—eagles when doing so can’t be avoided.
According to Fish and Wildlife, these permits have time durations as well as a limit on how many eagles can be killed. For example, the service authorized the take of up to 12 golden eagles over a five-year period for an energy project in Solano County that consists of 107 wind turbines.
Golden eagles aren’t the only protected species found in San Miguelito Canyon. It’s also a significant location for the endangered Gaviota tarplant. The yellow petals on this wildflower bloom in late summer and fall, when few other plants are flowering, according to Nick Jensen, a conservation scientist with the California Native Plant Society.
The plant does exist in the south and central parts of the county, such as Hollister Ranch and the Santa Ynez Mountains, but almost the entirety of the species is found within or near the project site, Jensen said.
“This is the epicenter of this plant from a population percentage,” Jensen said.
The California Native Plant Society—one of the groups appealing the project—and others who oppose the wind farm argue that with the eagles, tarplant, and other sensitive environmental resources in the area, the developer should choose a different site or at least rearrange some of the turbine locations.
But BayWa Vice President of Development Daniel Duke said this is the only spot in the county where a wind energy project can take place due to wind speed and the area’s topography. He added that BayWa—a German company involved in different business sectors, including energy—has completed years of studies to develop turbine locations that minimize the project’s environmental impacts.
“It’s a detailed modeling effort that’s done with a wind resource specialist,” Duke said. “That model runs and shows where are good locations that avoid sensitive resources but still maximize wind resources.”
In addition to these pre-construction environmental efforts, the county has also imposed strict mitigation measures BayWa must follow once the project is operational. These include a monitoring program to keep track of any and all birds that are found dead within the project site and a restoration plan for the tarplant.
“I think what you’re going to see, if you come to this site, is a perfect combination of conserved open space and a renewable energy project existing together in a really cool way,” Duke said.
But Ferry isn’t convinced that these measures are going to be enough to protect the raptors in the area. The Audubon Society didn’t file an appeal after the county Planning Commission approved the project, but Ferry said the group will be at the Jan. 28 Board of Supervisors meeting to state its case.
“I always think of nature as being a spider web,” Ferry said. “You can cut one, two, or three links of the spider web and it’ll still hold, but eventually you’re going to cut a link that causes the whole spider web to collapse.”
Second time’s a charm?
This isn’t the first time Bedford and the Audubon Society have fought against plans for a wind farm in the quiet canyon. In 2009, the county Planning Commission approved plans for a similar project with a much larger footprint. That project called for 65 turbines, more than double the number proposed in this most recent iteration.
Bedford appealed what was then called the Lompoc Wind Energy Project and later filed lawsuits after the county allowed the project to move forward. Although Bedford lost the legal battles, he still got his way.
Four years after receiving the county’s initial approval, the Spanish-based energy company Acciona backed out of the project. In 2013, a spokesperson with the company told the Sun that Acciona decided to allocate its resources elsewhere.
Bedford thought this was the end of his wind-related troubles until another company purchased the project’s assets three years later. He said he’s disappointed the project is moving forward again, given the amount of time and money he invested in fighting it previously.
“That’s why it’s hard to fight this project; it’s just expensive,” Bedford said. “The average working person doesn’t have time for all of this.”
Many of Bedford’s neighbors aren’t fighting the project. BayWa is placing the turbines on private land it’s leasing from ranchers in the canyon, such as LeRoy Scolari, whose family has owned the property for more than 100 years. During the Nov. 20 Planning Commission meeting, Scolari said the money the family receives through this lease would allow them to improve their ranch.
“Livestock operations of this size are very difficult to maintain financially,” Scolari said. “This project would give an infusion of income, which would allow improvement of the grazing patterns, upgrading the land, upgrading of all of the equipment.”
After BayWa acquired the project assets—including the years of studies, planning, and environmental work—from Acciona in 2016, the company restarted the county permitting process and began looking at ways to make improvements.
Duke said that the company identified ways to reconfigure the turbines to limit the effects on environmental and cultural resources while still producing a maximum amount of energy. Through this process, the company was able to reduce the number of wind turbines from 65 to 29.
“The biggest benefit we had is because we were 10 years later, the wind turbine technology had changed drastically,” Duke said. “They are taller but much more efficient and produce the same amount of energy as the Lompoc Wind Energy Project.”
In addition to the turbines, BayWa plans to build a substation where the power from each turbine would be delivered via underground cables. From there, the energy would travel through a roughly 7-mile transmission line—which the company needs to build—that eventually connects with Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s electrical system in Lompoc. The project also includes a 5,000-square-foot operations and maintenance building for the storage of equipment and supplies.
Before beginning all this work, BayWa needs to acquire permits from the county, as well as state and federal agencies that protect wildlife and wetlands—including the golden eagle take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Duke said he expects the company will have these permits by the end of January, which would allow construction to commence in early February.
All of the work involved, including removing oak trees to widen roadways so trucks transporting turbine parts can reach the site, is expected to take 10 months. Duke said it’s critical that BayWa maintains this schedule; otherwise, the company may have to bail on the project.
The wind turbines have to be operational by the end of 2020 or else BayWa loses a federal tax credit that’s available to companies developing renewable energy projects. Duke said the company had fully expected and planned to start construction last spring and finish by early 2020, but it experienced significant delays in the permitting process.
These delays have led to the tight deadline the company is now facing. Duke said that without this tax credit, renewable energy projects aren’t viable and would actually cost more to develop than the money they generate.
“We can’t wait six months, we can’t wait three months, we have to get this thing done,” Duke said. “Otherwise there won’t be a project.”
Pushing for renewable
If the county misses out on this project a second time, Duke doubts a third company will give it a try.
County Planning Commission Chair John Parke acknowledged this reality during the commission’s Nov. 20 meeting when it approved the project.
“We had a project we approved in 2009 and ran it through the ringer, and it disappeared,” Parke said. “Santa Barbara [County] could keep looking at these projects very carefully and keep having no projects. We run that risk here.”
Moving this project forward is in line with other steps the county took last year—including joining Monterey Bay Community Power and loosening solar panel regulations—to more actively pursue its renewable energy and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
In December, the county Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring a climate emergency and acknowledging that the county isn’t making progress on its emission goals. The county hoped to reduce its emissions by 15 percent below 2007 levels by 2020, but instead emissions increased to 14 percent above 2007 levels in 2016. The county has also only approved one utility-scale energy project: a 40-megawatt solar panel project in the Cuyama Valley.
This lack of progress amid a warming climate is the reason that some environmental groups, such as the Community Environmental Council (CEC) and the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter, support this project.
“We’ve seen a heightened awareness of the climate crisis,” CEC Energy and Climate Program Director Michael Chiacos said. “I think it’s on the tips of everybody’s mind that we need to do more.”
Lewis with the Clean Coalition—which is a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the state’s transition to renewable energy—said not only will this project more than double the amount of renewable energy produced in the county, but it’ll also create a microgrid in the area, making Lompoc and North County more resilient.
BayWa has a purchasing agreement in place that allows Marin Clean Energy in the Bay Area to claim the renewable energy credits attached to this project, but all of the electricity produced will be used locally. With electricity providers throughout the state utilizing widespread power outrages to prevent transmission lines from causing wildfires, having a local energy source is important, Lewis said.
“What we’re seeing from public safety power shutoffs is that when there’s a threat along a transmission line, they have to shut the whole line down and can’t turn it back on until they do a whole inspection,” Lewis said. “The good thing about the project is that the energy is local; it’s a short transmission route.”
Jensen with the California Native Plant Society and members of the Audubon Society have said they support the county’s effort to obtain renewable energy sources as it tries to address climate change locally. But they believe that this project as designed is the wrong approach.
“What we’re saying is we have a project with severe environmental impacts, [although] it’s a solution to climate change,” Jensen said. “And what we’re also trying to say is we need to find solutions that don’t create problems in and of themselves.”
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