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Towering new turbines spinning in the winds of Altamont Pass  

Credit:  Newer project will reduce bird deaths, but will still kill dozens each year | By Joseph Geha | Bay Area News Group | September 25, 2021 | www.eastbaytimes.com ~~

LIVERMORE – If you’ve driven through the Altamont Pass lately, you may have noticed a subtle but important change: fewer wind turbines on the surrounding hillsides, and some of those that remain are much taller.

Over the past four years, 569 decades-old turbines have been methodically removed from a 3,400-acre wind farm north of Interstate 580 to make way for 23 strategically placed state-of-the-art machines that reach up to almost 500 feet at the tips of their massive rotor blades.

“These wind turbines are going to deliver enough clean energy to power 47,000 East Bay homes annually,” Nick Chaset, CEO of East Bay Community Energy, said ahead of Friday’s ceremonial ribbon cutting marking completion of the four-year Summit Winds project.

Chaset said the “repowered” wind farm – owned by Greenbacker Renewable Energy Company, LLC, of New York – is a harbinger of a not-so-distant future in which millions of people will be living completely off renewable energy.

All that clean energy comes at a price, however, and it’s not all about dollars and cents.

Though touted as more “wildlife friendly” than their windmill ancestors, the new turbines aren’t allaying the concerns of naturalists who have long been concerned about the area’s bird population. The spinning blades still are projected to kill dozens of birds each year, including golden eagles.

The Altamont Pass area is a critical breeding and wintering habitat for the eagles, said Glenn Phillips, director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. And although wind farm developers generally are taking more caution these days to place turbines outside of “the very worst” areas, it’s not enough, he added.

In 2010, Alameda County and the Altamont Pass’ numerous wind farm investors settled a lawsuit with multiple environmental groups, including the Audubon Society, over bird deaths.

Before then, hundreds and sometimes more than a thousand birds a year were killed in Altamont by dozens of turbines on wind farms, including 75 to 110 golden eagles, according to Phillips.

Under the settlement, the wind farms agreed to take whatever measures were necessary to limit the number of annual eagle deaths to 18, although Phillips says they sometimes have exceeded that number.

“If we continue killing eagles at the rates that we have been … there will be no golden eagles left in 50 years or so,” he said. “Wind energy is important, but there are lots of other places to develop it.”

While the county estimates that the Summit Winds project will reduce the deaths of four key species of birds by roughly 66%, it actually could kill 9% more golden eagles, or as many as six per year.

More than 20 red-tailed hawks could be killed annually by Summit’s turbines, along with nearly 10 American kestrels and more than five burrowing owls, according to county documents.

The trade-off, of course, is clean, efficient energy.

At their maximum capacity, the 23 turbines can produce 57.5 megawatts of electricity per hour that’s sent into the power grid for customers of East Bay Community Energy, a nonprofit that serves more than 1.7 million residential and commercial users in 14 cities across much of Alameda County. The agency has purchased 20 years of power from the Summit Winds project, which it has dubbed the Scott Haggerty Wind Energy Center after the former Alameda County supervisor.

East Bay Community Energy is one of more than 20 “community choice aggregation” programs in California that buy renewable energy and partner with traditional, investor-owned power companies such as PG&E to distribute it to homes and businesses.

While about 41% of the power the agency currently sends into the grid is renewable, Chaset said the goal is to deliver 100% renewable energy by 2030 from a mix of projects, largely wind and solar.

“To do that we have to build thousands of megawatts, many more of these projects over the next decade, and this is our first project to come online,” he said.

All of the old turbines were removed from the Summit Winds site between 2016 and 2018, according to county records, and many other turbines had been replaced with newer ones over the last decade.

Phillips said the larger, slower-spinning blades on newer turbines haven’t significantly slowed the bird deaths, however. He said bird kills appear to be more closely tied to the amount of energy being produced, the amount of air that’s “swept” by the blades, and how long they run.

“There is this large volume of air that is the habitat … and when you put a Cuisinart in the air, to occupy a certain volume of that air, they are going to kill birds,” he said. “They’re pretty efficient killing machines.”

Doug Bell, wildlife program manager for East Bay Regional Park District, said a balance must be struck between generating energy in the Altamont and sustaining important wildlife like the eagles.

“They are a valued natural resource. They are part of the great biodiversity picture in California,” Bell said. “That may just mean that maybe we produce fewer megawatts in the Altamont.”

“It is on everybody, from state and federal wildlife agencies, to the county, the developers, and the NGOs who are advocating on behalf of our natural resources, to deal with this responsibly,” Phillips said. “And I don’t see that we’ve done it yet.”

Source:  Newer project will reduce bird deaths, but will still kill dozens each year | By Joseph Geha | Bay Area News Group | September 25, 2021 | www.eastbaytimes.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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