The Bureau of Land Management’s Palm Springs office on Wednesday granted final approval for the overhaul of a wind farm that sits 1.5 miles north of the Whitewater community and has been met with opposition from nearby homeowners for years.
First constructed in 1983, the 30-megawatt, 401-acre wind farm generates electricity via about 460 relatively small turbines, many so old they rise from the hillsides via black, metal lattice structures. The operation is owned by Toronto-based Brookfield Renewable Energy, which plans to tear down the old units and install nine huge turbines that will rise about 500 feet into the air and generate roughly the same amount of electricity.
“The Mesa Wind Repower Project is a good example of how evolving technologies can help meet our energy needs while allowing for more efficient use of our public lands,” BLM Acting Field Manager Jeremiah Karuzas said in a statement announcing the decision.
The Earth is facing a dangerous crisis fueled by climate change – the past five years have been the five hottest in recorded history – and more renewable electricity generation from solar, wind, geothermal and other technologies is vital to address the issue. In 2018, California set a goal of 2045 to be entirely powered by zero emission sources. The BLM and Brookfield both heralded this chance to decrease the wind farm’s footprint while still providing renewable energy generation in the windy San Gorgonio Pass.
“We are very pleased with the decision to move forward and we are pleased with the entire process and how it incorporated input from pertinent stakeholders while understanding the need for renewable energy,” Brookfield spokesperson Brian Noonan told The Desert Sun via email. “We look forward to continuing that dialogue and maintaining positive relationships with the community.”
But even the cleanest power plants have impacts, and the Southern California desert is the home to significant friction between renewable energy’s growing footprint and conservation efforts.
Wayne King lives near the Whitewater Preserve and has spearheaded opposition to the project, citing concerns ranging from the towering turbine impairing aesthetics to the potential for equipment sparking wildfires in Whitewater Canyon, which has only one way in and out.
“There’s really very little we could do without spending a lot of money. It’s just typical of huge corporations running roughshod over little people,” King said when informed of the BLM’s approval, adding that he “just can’t fight the battle by myself.”
In 1999, the then-director of the Palm Springs BLM office delivered a letter to area residents telling them further wind development would not happen there. King, though, said he no longer has support from many of the neighbors who rent but don’t own their properties. Legal action also would be prohibitively expensive.
“We’ll just have the strobe effect for the rest of the time we live in the canyon, and we’ll have the hideous monstrosities,” he said. “It is what is.”
Noonan said that Brookfield has prioritized community engagement, visiting the Coachella Valley earlier in the year to meet with residents. The project also shifted from 11 turbines to nine and created a wildfire safety plan in 2015 that will be updated in cooperation with the BLM and Cal Fire.
The removal of hundreds of turbines will result in a less than 5% drop in total energy output even with the significant decrease in the total number of turbines, according to the BLM. Tearing down the lattice structures also will decrease nesting habitat for ravens, which are a major predator of desert tortoises that live in the area, Noonan said.
Because the project is on BLM land, Wednesday’s approval was the last major hurdle, although there are several other state and federal permits still outstanding. Noonan said that Brookfield is in the process of wrapping up all those processes and expects to break ground in mid-2021.
Near to the Mesa project, Brookfield also is in the process of gaining approval to repower another wind farm called Alta Mesa. That location was built between 1987 and 1997, and 14 new wind turbines are planned to replace 159 older versions.
The company expects to finance and construct both sites concurrently. The Alta Mesa site primarily needs permits from Riverside County, and Brookfield is also aiming to break ground there in mid-2021.