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New rules for the Altamont Pass

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California's Altamont Pass is about to undergo the most sweeping repowering of outmoded wind farms yet seen in the history of the industry. Almost 140 MW of installed capacity is to be replaced. Meantime, new ground rules for the design of wind power stations in the area are just emerging from a complex planning and consultation process. Planners are currently in the throes of pinning down a series of changes to existing environmental rules after consultation with members of the wind industry, environmentalists and others.

A final environmental impact report will not be ready for some weeks or months -- probably in September. Its contents, however, were previewed at the American Wind Energy Association's Windpower '98 conference in May. A draft is also likely to be circulated for comment from mid July -- for 45 days -- prior to formulation of a final version, says AnnaMarie Dietzgen, the planner in charge of the environmental impact report for the repowering.

The process has been on a fast track because of the size of the proposed repowering -- and because of the looming June 1999 expiry date of the federal tax credit for wind power production. Three or four developers are in the process of submitting plans for repowering within this tight schedule to avoid the risk of the tax credit not being extended. The rush to repower the Altamont is also being prompted by the strong dollar, the growing demand for green electricity following deregulation, by money starting to flow from California state coffers to aid renewables in the transition to a competitive market, and by the opportunity to buy up some of the regions' wind farm assets from bankrupt wind companies Kenetech and FloWind.

Today's project developers are watching the process closely. The environmental impact report will incorporate some of the most crucial environmental lessons learned in the quarter century of the modern wind industry -- and the new standards will determine the size and shape of the planned repowerings and future development in the pass for years to come. Since the 1980s the Altamont Pass has hosted the world's largest concentration of turbines. In 1991 it boasted almost 7000 units, though this has dropped to a little over 5000 as old projects have failed.

The birds issue

Three factors have been seen as important in drafting the plan, noise, visual impact, and birds. It is the bird problem, however, which is the overriding concern of planners. And even if other areas do not have the same bird-turbine problem as the Altamont Pass and nearby Solano County, the contents of the Altamont Pass report will also be applicable elsewhere. Birds kills in the Altamont Pass have become highly controversial -- in part because the 35,000-acre area has the greatest concentration of nesting golden eagle pairs anywhere in the world. As a result it has had the unenviable role of being on the cutting edge of knowledge on bird deaths in wind farms. The mitigation efforts in the plan are thus crucial not only for future wind power development in the Altamont, but also for any other area with such a density of protected birds. Further environmental concerns too have been widely studied in the Altamont Pass wind farms, because of their longevity and because the local counties are more pro-active or hands-on than those in other parts of California.

A "Biological Resource Management Plan," which includes various restrictions on wind farm design and siting, is nearing completion for the area. Such a plan is the most comprehensive way of dealing with the concerns associated with most of the region's species, from raptors to kit foxes, says Dietzgen. Once completed, the plan will probably be refined over time as more knowledge is gathered. It is hoped that large turbines will lead to fewer bird kills, because there will be fewer turbines to generate the same amount of power. But until then, developers will not be allowed to exceed the existing megawatt capacity of the wind farms -- an effective cap on wind development regardless of how much electricity a project can sell on the open market.

Birds were the main theme of a talk at Windpower '98 by L. Darryl Gray of Alameda County, one of three senior staff planners in charge of updating the standards. The issue had become the most "serious concern" while rewriting the environmental impact report, he told a packed session during the three day conference in Bakersfield, California, in late April. Gray, who has worked on wind development in the area for much of its history, assured the audience though that officials in the Altamont Pass, from Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, do nonetheless strenuously support the "clean environmental" forms of energy such as wind.

Specific bans

Lattice towers will most likely not be allowed in repowered projects because of the apparent link between them and avian kills. "I just don't expect lattice towers to pass muster," said Gray. If such a limitation is adopted in the final report, that would galvanise a trend that is under way in the industry anyway. In its repowering, the new US energy company Green Ridge Power LLC, formed by US energy company and utility owner Florida Power & Light (FPL), NEG Micon of Denmark and Japanese giant Nichimen Corp, has indicated that it will replace almost all of the Kenetech 56-100 turbines it now owns in the Altamont Pass. These turbines with lattice towers will be replaced by turbines mounted on tubular towers and made by Danish manufacturer NEG Micon.

Green Ridge's Sam Enfield in Florida can not say exactly how much capacity the repowering will amount to. One figure that has been floating around though is that Green Ridge will repower 75 MW. The Green Ridge partners bought the turbines from Kenetech Windpower when it sought bankruptcy protection in 1996 and was liquidated. Another 100 MW or so of Kenetech turbines, managed but not owned by Kenetech, were bought by Foras, which has links to a Danish finance company.

Major design change requirements also under consideration are the colour of the blades and speed of the rotors -- also because of their perceived danger to birds. Ultra white blades have been considered because they seem to be more discernible to birds, Gray told Windpower '98. But that is not likely to be a requirement in the final plan, says Dietzgen. Slower revolution of the rotors -- about one-third of the speed of older turbines -- is being considered. Requiring a slower speed is still tentative though, said Gray, because scientific facts have not yet proven that slowing rotor speeds would reduce the rate of bird kills in the Altamont Pass. Slower speed, however, is becoming standard in the wind industry with larger turbines.

Other stringent conditions will include bird kill monitoring and avian research requirements. Much wiring will have to be underground. Officials for the US Fish and Wildlife Service officials have said that they might want a "habitat conservation plan" that will allow them more lee-way in deciding whether to pursue those who inadvertently kill individual protected birds, such as wind developers. A federal probe of wind farms and their contribution to bird kills was started years ago, and federal officials determined that since the kills were not intentional they would not file civil or criminal charges.

The one company that has formally filed plans with local planners is US developer SeaWest Corporation. SeaWest intends to pull out all but one of its 433 older turbines on its own plants, consisting of Windmatic, Polenko, Micon, ESI and Enertech turbines -- replacing them with 32 to 50 larger machines starting this autumn. The capacity repowered will be from 25.5 MW to 25.9 MW, says Steve Steinhour, a vice president of SeaWest. The turbines under consideration for the repowering, according to planning documents on file, are Nedwind 500 kW turbines from the Netherlands, Danish Micon 750 kW turbines, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries or MHI 600 kW units.

A third company known to be planning a major repowering, in addition to SeaWest and ESI Energy Group, is known as MNR Energy systems. It is redeveloping the old FloWind sites. MNR consists of NEG Micon in partnership with the FPL Group of Florida once again. MNR has said it will pull out at least 169 of the turbines installed by FloWInd, now in bankruptcy protection. They intend to install 53 new larger NEG Micon machines, or almost 40 MW. British developer Renewable Energy Systems had also been a partner in MNR, but it now appears to be working on separate plans in the Altamont Pass.

Bird deaths hit the press

Preparation of the environmental management plant comes as local newspapers are releasing new information on bird kills in an effort, presumably, to sway the planning process. Eighty-five golden eagles were killed between January 1995 and March 1998, out of a total of 679 avian kills, reports the Contra Costa Times. Thirty-six of the eagles were killed in 1997, says the newspaper, which analyses wind industry figures reported to Alameda County. About 100 golden eagle pairs nest in the Altamont Pass area. Golden eagles are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty and Bald Eagle Protection Acts.

The paper also reports that wind turbines may be killing as many eagles in the area as those that die from all other causes combined. Of the 179 golden eagles radio-tagged in January 1994 by biologists studying the phenomenon of wind turbines and bird kills, only 80 are still alive. An estimated one-third to one-half of the 99 deaths are attributed to collisions or electrocutions on wind farms, according to biologist Grainger Hunt with the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group. Raptor deaths, and especially those of golden eagles, have been especially controversial in the Altamont Pass. Eagle deaths also tend to draw a huge public outcry. Research paid for by the state and the wind industry has monitored the problem for several years, with the result that some changes in turbine design have already been made.

A research plan submitted by the Santa Cruz bird group was the top ranked proposal for energy related environmental research in the Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program awards announced by the California Energy Commission (CEC) in late May. The bird group, based at the University of California at Santa Cruz, requested $675,121. The proposal was one of three up for an award in the energy-environment category, an indication of just how important the issue can seem. The other awards, for higher amounts of state funding, went to a broad based proposal to assess the potential implications and costs of global warming in California, and to a proposal for electro-technology applications for potable water and protection of the environment.

Worst in Altamont

Birds in the Altamont Pass and nearby Solano County seem far more likely to be harmed by wind farming than those in the Tehachapi wind resource areas of southern California, according to a preliminary conclusion of Dick Anderson, the CEC's bird expert. Anderson is America's leading publicly funded researcher of birds and wind farms and has been conducting an on-going study of the wind resource area in southern California.

Birds are over five times as likely to die near turbines than farther away, reports Anderson, although he notes the effect may be exaggerated because more carcasses will be found near the turbines if the surrounding vegetation has been cleared. Indeed, 80% of bird deaths were within 150 metres of the wind turbines. He cautions that the figures mean relatively little until more is known about avian mortality and activity in the area.

Anderson also detects more bird species and more individual birds farther from turbines, implying that some of them may avoid the machines. His research finds too that there were more birds on the east slope of the study area than the west side. He stresses that his research might under count bird activity, such as at night. But overall, the impact of Tehachapi's wind farming does not seem significant to birds in general or to any sensitive species of birds in particular. "The biological importance seems low, in my opinion," he concludes. "Biologically, we don't have a problem." Indeed he estimates that Tehachapi has about one-eighth to one-tenth of the problem with bird deaths than exists in the Altamont Pass.

The second phase of Anderson's research project in Tehachapi will look at the impact of lattice towers and rotor swept area on avian mortality. His work is funded by the CEC, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and, to a lesser degree, the American Wind Energy Association. Total funding is $800,000 to $900,000, of which about half is from the CEC and half from the NREL. AWEA contributed $5000 two years ago and $15,000 last year, according to Anderson.

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