California hit by anti-wind vandalism attacks

US: Meterological towers are popular targets as developers and police deal with attacks that have cost almost half a milion dollars.

A sabotaged meteorological tower in Kern County

Anti-wind sentiment may have sparked a recent spate of vandalism at projects in California, which has so far cost developers almost $500,000 in equipment and clean-up.

In mid-September police still had no leads - and the wind community was concerned that 'copy-cat' attacks might occur. However, there have been no publicised reports of sabotage outside California.

In the most dramatic incident, someone commandeered a digger at night and ruptured an underground ConocoPhillips pipeline, spewing oil on to NextEra Energy Resources' Vasco repowering site in the Altamont Pass, northern California, causing $50,000-$100,000 in damage, lost oil and clean-up costs. NextEra has offered a $10,000 reward for information regarding the incident, which took place in late August.

The vandalism was noticed when there was a drop in pressure in the oil pipeline, which was shut down, said Contra Costa County Sheriff's spokesman, Jimmy Lee. The motive is unknown. "It was apparent that he or she knew what they were doing," he said. Steve Stengel, a NextEra spokesman, said: "(The first phase) is still expected to be operational by the end of 2011." He declined to comment further because of the ongoing criminal investigation.

The wind-power project has been highly controversial in an area where thousands of birds, including golden eagles, are estimated to have been killed yearly by smaller, older wind turbines. These are now being replaced by more bird-friendly models after a binding settlement on the repowering was reached in December by parties including bird groups and California's top law-enforcement official, the state attorney general.

The Tehachapi area in southern California has seen around a dozen meteorological towers toppled and destroyed in the past few months. Companies affected include Western Wind Energy, enXco, AES Wind Generation and Helo Energy, which in mid-September reportedly withdrew its planning application for a particularly controversial wind farm. Each downed meteorological tower might cost $30,000 to replace.

"It's been a concern in the Tehachapi area," acknowledged Sandi Briner, enXco's marketing and communications director, who declined to comment further. Again, the incidents did not seem random. On Western Wind Energy's site, for example, someone cut the guy wires with bolt-cutters, causing the tower to topple.

There was no other damage and no theft, said Jeff Patterson, a Western Wind Energy consultant. He added that it took some knowledge to topple the tower. It is unlikely that the towers were targeted for their copper wire - which has been stolen from wind sites in the past - since each meteorological tower contains only about five kilograms of the commodity.

"I hope this has ended," said Patterson. If the ability to collect data is stopped for a few weeks, he said, the missing data can be extrapolated from other nearby towers. "It hurts us, but they're not stopping anything."

Local law enforcement has no suspects or leads, said sergeant Richard Wood of the Tehachapi substation of the Kern County Sheriff's department. Some of the incidents were in areas so remote that he thought it unlikely that home owners opposed to local wind farms were involved. Detectives have scanned websites of the more extreme wildlife and environment groups and found no trace of the attacks. Some local sentiment is so anti-wind that, according to Greentech Media, an opponent at a town council meeting proposed a defence fund if police were to catch a suspect.

Tehachapi has become a hotbed of development, with installed wind capacity more than doubling from 783MW to 1.56GW in the past year. As of 31 August, another 1.32GW of installed capacity had been permitted and 1.7GW was in the pipeline.

Some of the incidents, said Linda Parker of the Kern Wind Energy Association, might indeed be backlash. As wind development expands, it is moving closer and closer to communities. "More and more people don't want that change," she said. Tehachapi is also where the US Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the alleged deaths of protected golden eagles at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Pine Tree wind project.

$30,000 - The cost of replacing a toppled meterological tower