Costly experiment in mitigating bird deaths -- California loses ten per cent green power a year

A dozen wind farm owners in California will lose millions of dollars over 13 years as the result of an order to shut down turbines for months at a time in an ongoing experiment to mitigate bird deaths. As expected, a preliminary decision by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors for seasonal shutdowns to help prevent fatal collisions between migrating birds and wind turbines (Windpower Monthly, August 2005) was approved by the full board in late September. It is the result of a compromise with the wind industry after many years of debate.

The required shutdowns will cost wind turbine owners a collective $9 million a year and at least $120 million over the 13-year permitting period, says Rick Koebbe, president of Pacific Winds Inc, which owns 920 turbines in the pass. While much of that is lost revenue, expenditure is also required on various measures, including a scientific monitoring program to count dead birds, a scientific review committee, an environmental impact report and additional mitigation measures, such as moving rock piles, removing derelict turbines, and a complete retrofit of 50-60 miles of electrical lines.

"We've cut our staff by 25% and significantly slashed our parts budget to stay in business," Koebbe says. "And on top of that, of course, our available cash has been reduced. It's something we didn't expect and it's challenging."

For the first two years of the plan, half of the area's 5600 turbines -- in Alameda and Contra Costa counties -- will be shut down in November and December, while the rest will stop spinning in January and February. The turbines will be split between north and south and the shutdown months will be reversed in the second year. All turbines will be shut down for two-and-a-half months in the third year, for three months in the fourth year and for three-and-half months each year starting in the fifth year of the experiment.

Koebbe says that power output at Altamont Pass will be reduced by about 10% a year. "I can't talk for everybody, but most projects would be lucky to have a ten per cent margin. The environmental impact is that millions of pounds of CO2 will be put into the atmosphere each year to compensate for the lost wind power."

The Altamont Pass area is dominated by older, smaller and fast rotating wind turbines installed in the 1980s and 1990s. Estimates of the total wind generating capacity are vague, ranging from an educated guess of 540 MW from the industry, up to 585 MW according to official statistics. Turbines in Contra Costa County are not required to be shut down, but nearly all owners have agreed to participate in the Alameda County plan.

Repowering demand

The new measures also call for the complete replacement of all older turbines with larger, slower spinning machines over the next 13 years at a cost estimated to exceed $500 million. Yet Koebbe points out that the operating restrictions mean that developing and owning turbines in the Altamont Pass can no longer be a profitable investment. "We've told the county over and over and over again that the cost of these conditions will surpass the viability of profits for Altamont Pass," Koebbe says.

The complicated pattern of shutdowns over the first three years of the 13 year permitting period is to provide data on bird deaths. "It's being done that way for scientific purposes," says Koebbe. "We're experimenting to see what the correlation is and what works best. The environmental groups want to reduce bird collisions by 85%. This plan is expected to reduce avian mortality by 50% and it's a compromise. We told the county in very explicit terms that if they went ahead with 85% it would shut down Altamont Pass [wind power production]."

Migratory habits

Specific months for the shutdown were chosen because of avian migratory habits. "There are a lot of uncertainties and other months might work better," says James Walker, CEO of Enxco, a company with approximately 70 MW in the area. "But the wind seems to blow the most in summer afternoons when California really needs the power, then not so much in the fall. Altamont is a unique situation and this is a unique solution. We're trying to learn what works at Altamont, but it's important to remember that every part of the country is different," he adds.

The first turbines at Altamont Pass, a pioneering area for global wind power, were erected in the 1980s. The rotating plan of shutdowns represents the first time in the 24-year dispute between bird protectionists and the wind industry that a compromise on operational restrictions has been reached. Altamont Pass wind turbines provide enough electricity for some 120,000 homes.

"It's still not clear whether this will have the anticipated results," says Nancy Rader of the California Wind Energy Association. "We've commented at length about the flaws in these reports and more studies are needed."

Koebbe believes that by giving in to the fears of the bird lobby, the Alameda County board may have set a dangerous precedent. "Billions of birds die from other sources but wind farms are targeted," he says. "We're doing more to save birds at Altamont than anybody else in the world and I think the bird groups should be delighted. But they want total shutdown."

If nothing else, Koebbe hopes the process will make the wind industry wiser. "Altamont Pass is 78 square miles and 580 MW. It's a huge area and any project of that size attracts a lot of attention," he says. "So, what's the lesson? Well, there are a lot of things that could have been done sooner. For one thing, we could have spent more time working the politics of the situation. Also, co-ordinating all the companies involved is not easy, but we're learning how to work together. Mainly, though, I think we're learning not to build any more 580 MW projects. If this was a 50 MW project it probably wouldn't be attracting all the attention."

Never again

Investors are unlikely to participate in a similar large concentration of wind turbines in California, says Koebbe. "It wouldn't be smart to do. I call up companies doing bigger projects and ask them if they know what's going on here. Everything is more difficult in California. Permitting is more difficult, overall costs are higher. It's just more difficult no matter how you look at it. Those are the lessons we're taking away."

Disputing numbers

Various studies disagree on the exact number of birds killed each year at Altamont Pass, a main route for bird migration. "There are studies in Europe showing where large turbines replaced smaller ones and bird kills were reduced," says Tom Gray of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). "And raptor kills are definitely an issue at Altamont. But what is perplexing to me is why this has translated into the bogeyman of mass bird kills throughout the US. There's nothing that supports wind farms as a serious threat."