Time is running out for the public, including Whitewater Canyon residents who have spent decades fighting the wind turbines dotting the hills near their homes, to weigh in as the Bureau of Land Management considers whether to approve the Mesa Wind Repower Project.
The hundreds of old wind turbines scattered around the San Gorgonio Pass – their lattice structure belying their age – were constructed in the 1980s as part of one of the oldest commercial wind farms in the country.
Now, global energy company Brookfield Renewable Partners plans to dismantle 460 of these small, aging towers and build 11 new turbines that will be able to generate the same amount of electricity, showcasing the huge gains made in renewable technology. The project is on BLM land, and the federal agency’s permitting process is ongoing now, with the draft environmental assessment currently out for public comment.
“The natural resource is here. It’s always been here. It’s always going to be here,” Berk Gursoy, Brookfield’s senior vice president for project development, told The Desert Sun during a tour of the site in February. But the old turbines are years past their useful life.
“New turbines are a lot more efficient, a lot more reliable. They operate a lot more safely,” he said. “You cannot keep fixing your car for so long. At a certain point, you need to buy a new car.”
A company spokesperson declined to comment directly on the environmental assessment until it’s finalized.
While the total number of turbines would drop significantly, area residents aren’t happy about the prospect of living next to massive structures that would be 499 feet tall from ground to blade tip.
Wayne King lives near Whitewater Preserve, and he’s been outspoken in his opposition to any turbines there, let alone windmills rising 40 stories high. King said that he submitted comments shortly after the BLM released the draft document.
“The way I replied was basically the same thing I’ve been saying all along,” King said, citing a litany of issues he sees with the project. “The biggest problem is the combination of aesthetics and fire risk because we’ve had multiple fires caused by windmills up here, and the aesthetics are just going to be horrendous.”
On the other hand, the new iteration of the project would reduce its total footprint from 40 acres to 30 acres. Gursoy committed to working with regulators to protect wildlife, including potentially leaving some of the turbines’ foundations in place if they’re supporting desert tortoise habitat.
Still, King and others were told back in 1999 by the BLM that the canyon’s viewsheds would be protected from wind turbines, so they question why they might have to now contend with the largest turbines in the area.
But King said that the loose coalition opposing the development no longer has the resources available to prolong the fight. If the BLM decides to give Brookfield’s proposal the green light, that will likely be the end of it.
“If it goes through, then the serenity of the canyon will be irretrievably lost,” King predicted.
Dan Ryan, a realty specialist and the BLM’s project manager, said the agency reached out directly to about 470 households that would be within view of the turbines. Most of the comments BLM has received to date, he said, regard aesthetics and concerns that turbines present a fire and public safety risk in a canyon with only one road in and out. Locals have also expressed concerns about impacts to wildlife.
The public comment period is open until June 19, and people can submit their thoughts to the BLM here: https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/1504648/570.
After the federal agency aggregates submissions, it will need time to respond. “BLM wouldn’t be making a decision until probably mid-August,” Ryan said.
Before then, the BLM will also need to complete consultation with local Native American tribes, the state’s historic preservation office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Renewable energy and conservation usually go hand-in-hand, as anything that transitions away from greenhouse gas-spewing coal, gas and oil is typically viewed as good. In Southern California, though, wind and solar mean big business and the accompanying concerns of large-scale development.
That’s why this project is a good idea, Brookfield representatives say, because it’s a guaranteed source of renewable energy generation and would be built on already disturbed land.
Jack Thompson manages the nearby Whitewater Preserve for the Wildlands Conservancy, and he’s torn on the idea. He said he’s reviewing the draft environmental assessment and will submit comments before the deadline.
In February, though, he spoke to The Desert Sun about the delicate balance needed to weigh the global impacts of climate change – which call for large-scale renewable energy development – against localized effects, such as birds that nest in the preserve being killed by the turbine blades.
“Repower projects are more desirable than new projects on undisturbed land, and renewables are a key component of trying to respond to climate chaos,” he said, adding that BLM needs to consider whether species loss is worth the additional megawatts of clean power. “That’s what the analysis is going to show, we hope, whether or not it is a good balance.”
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