California appears to be headed slowly away from the carbon age. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has set a goal of reducing air emissions that contribute to global climate change by 80% over the next 45 years. The California Energy Commission has directed private utilities to provide 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2017.

However, the experience at the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area — California’s oldest and one of the world’s largest wind farms — suggests that the move to renewable energy sources could have consequences. The approximately 5,000 windmills in the Altamont Pass area, which separates the East Bay from the San Joaquin Valley, kill between 880 and 1,300 raptors every year, including as many as 116 golden eagles, according to an Energy Commission study released in 2004. Golden eagles are protected by both federal and state law.

“It’s the worst place in North America to put a wind farm, in terms of bids of prey,” said Jeff Miller, Bay Area wildlands coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity. The site is on the raptor migration route, it serves as a golden eagle nesting ground and it provides wintertime habitat for a number of species.

In 2003, 20-year use permits issued by Alameda County for various Altamont wind facilities started coming up for renewal. The eastern county Board of Zoning Adjustments — the only regulatory body for the wind farm — added some conditions aimed at reducing avian fatalities. Environmentalists, however, were not satisfied and appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

It was obvious that environmentalists and the power generators were far apart. So the county put together a 30-member “wind power working group” to negotiate. In July, the Board of Supervisors gave its tentative approval to a package of nine measures aimed at reducing bird deaths over time while also keeping the wind farm in business. Supervisors appear to be walking a middle ground, not requiring as much as environmentalists would like but going further than the windmill operators wanted. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to formalize the new permit conditions in September, according to county Planning Director Chris Bazar.

The measures approved by supervisors require windmill operators to replace smaller, older models with fewer larger turbines that produce roughly seven to ten times the electricity than an old turbine can. The replacement project — known as “repowering” — would be phased in over 13 years. Additionally, the county will require that operators immediately shut down about 100 of the most dangerous windmills and that operations shut off everything for two months each winter. The wintertime shut down would grow to 3 1/2 months within five years. Additionally, supervisors called for extensive scientific study funded by the industry.

Some of that information would have been useful two decades ago, when the county first approved the wind farm.

“There was not any significant environmental review back then,” Bazar conceded. “There wasn’t any sense of these issues that eventually arose. The idea that birds would fly into turbines — no one seemed to anticipate that.”

Now, there is no denying that birds will fly into the blades of a windmill. Birds have also gotten electrocuted on power lines and been harmed by windmill operators’ poor rodent management practices. Still, the industry insists on perspective. While as many as 4,700 birds of all species die at the Altamont wind farm every year (the upper figure in the Energy Commission’s 2004 study), that hardly compares to the hundreds of millions of birds that die annually in collisions with buildings, cars and communications towers, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The average pet cat kills more birds than the average Altamont windmill, according to the industry group.

While those statistics may be true, Altamont is sensitive because of the types of birds killed — including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels and burrowing owls. Golden eagles, for example, are protected by the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and they are a “fully protected” species under state Fish and Game Code. Environmentalists argue that windmill owners break the law every time a turbine kills one of these protected birds. Wildlife regulatory agencies recognize that the bird kills occur and have urged mitigation measures, but they have not sought prosecution of any wind energy company.

Partly because of the regulatory agencies’ position, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) sued all wind power companies at Altamont last year under the state unfair competition law. The lawsuit, Center for Biological Diversity v. FPL Group, Alameda County Superior Court case No. RG04183113, got snared by Proposition 64, however. That ballot measure, approved by voters one day after CBD filed its lawsuit, restricts lawsuits under the unfair competition law. In March, Judge Ronald Sabraw ruled that CBD could seek an injunction against the companies, but could not request restitution or civil penalties.

While the wildlife agencies have remained in the background, the attorney general’s office recently urged the Board of Supervisors to adopt the recommendations contained in the Energy Commission’s 500-page study from 2004. These recommendations, backed by environmentalists, call for removing about 300 of the worst offending turbines, an immediate start to the 3 1/2-month wintertime shut down, and other measures aimed at reducing bird fatalities by 85% within six years.

The fact that the county is willing to do less than urged by the Energy Commission and the attorney general is “disturbing,” said Elizabeth Murdock, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. The proposed mitigations may not even cut bird deaths in half, she said.

The county’s Bazar, though, defended the mitigations as “a really state-of-the-art set of solutions” that will be unique for the industry. Industry representatives argued that the measures requested by environmentalists and the state would put them out of business — an argument that the attorney general’s office dismissed because the windmill operators have not provided financial information.

Bazar said that the county takes the financial health of the wind power operators seriously. Failure of the wind farm would place urban development pressure on a part of the county that many people consider to be valuable open space.

James Walker, a director of enXco, which owns windmills at Altamont, told the Contra Costa Times that the mitigations “pushed the envelope” but that he appreciated the certainty they bring to the industry.

What just about everyone agrees upon is that “repowering” appears to be the long-term answer. A 1998 study said that about 900 larger and more efficient turbines could produce as much electricity as the 5,000 smaller turbines at Altamont. Furthermore, studies suggest that the taller and slower-moving large turbines are safer for birds.

“Repowering looks very promising,” said Murdock. But she cautioned that the science is evolving and no one can predict for certain how birds will behave around new wind facilities.

The county has committed to completing an environmental impact report on repowering in three years, Bazar said. The EIR will look at the whole Altamont wind farm, he said, and provide certainty to operators who must invest about $1 million for each new large wind turbine. The mitigations backed by county supervisors call for repowering the entire wind farm by 2017.

As California tries to encourage the development of renewable energy, implications of the Altamont experience are unclear. Dozens of wind farms are proposed across California. And, in June, the Bureau of Land Management released an environmental study that found wind farm development to be acceptable on federal lands, including 72,000 acres in California that appear to be prime areas for wind power.

The American Wind Industry Association recognizes that the deaths of so many rare and inspiring birds at Altamont has been a black eye for the industry.

But, said association spokeswoman Christine Real de Azua, “it’s really an anomaly. If you look at other equally large wind power projects developed at the same time in the Palm Springs area and the Tehachapi area, they don’t have the same problem at all.”

Miller, of the CBD, said that bird kills are a problem at other wind farms, but the problem is far smaller than at Altamont. “The lesson is, take a good look at bird use of an area, and don’t put in a wind farm where there are a lot of birds,” he said.

Murdock said the Audubon Society is concerned about global warming and, therefore, likes wind power. But picking the right location for wind farms, and studying the impacts of those projects, is critical, she said.

“If we had known then what we know now in terms of Altamont’s significance for golden eagles and other birds, it would have never gotten built where it did,” Murdock said.

Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185.
Elizabeth Murdock, Golden Gate Audubon Society, (510) 843-9912.
Chris Bazar, Alameda County Planning Department, (510) 670-5400.
California Energy Commission study of bird mortality at Altamont Pass:
American Wind Energy Association: