"The place doesn't look too much different from the Altamont," claims long-time environmentalist Peter West, referring to California's Altamont Pass, home to the greatest concentration of wind turbines in the world. West was recently called "a lapdog at the seat of greedy industry" when he spoke up for a Kenetech Windpower project proposed in this less than spectacular portion of the Columbia River basin.
The opponents of Kenetech's Columbia Hills project in the Pacific Northwest use tactics that remind West of stereotypical bullies frequently found on the Atlantic coast. "They have a real New York in-your-face type of attitude that reminds me of my old neighbourhood in the Bronx," he says. "I guess when you don't have good arguments, you resort to personal attacks," adds West, obviously a bit shaken from the experience. He is discovering that it takes no more than one environmental group -- in this case the Audubon Society -- to hold up a project that has enlisted the support of more than a dozen other environmental and public interest organisations.
A former ally of West's in the fight to protect Washington state's most beautiful rivers also accuses him of "perpetuating cultural genocide" by supporting the Columbia Hills wind farm. The projected wind farm would be located amid millions of acres of land ceded by the Yakima Native American tribe to the US government in 1858. The tribe is the only other party opposed to the wind project, but it opposes all development in the area, maintaining that federal officials snookered away the acreage. West appreciates Native American different views on land, time and appropriate use. Just the same, he notes, the place is also "overgrazed as hell."
The former colleague of West who made the genocide comment, Dennis White, heads the Columbia Gorge Audubon Society. One of the arguments used by White in opposing the project, ironically enough, is that global warming is yet to be proved, an argument typically associated with advocates for fossil fuels, not those who profess to want to save the earth. "We don't have the definitive data," says White in an interview. He claims he supports wind power, but this is not the proper site because it is a unique raptor habitat. "If we are going to do wind power, let's do it right. We don't want to make the same mistake as we did with the dams," he adds, referring to steep declines in native fish populations on a river that features 250 dams.
West is working in the trenches for a model programme attempting to enlist environmentalists in support of wind power in the Pacific Northwest, one of the most promising -- yet undeveloped -- markets for renewables in the country. Rachel Shimshak, director of the Portland, Oregon based Renewables Northwest Project, points out that "there are no non-hydro renewables in the Pacific Northwest."
too much perfection
That is why she finds it highly ironic that some local environmental groups "are setting up a standard far more stringent for wind power than those that apply to natural gas and coal plants." These are sources of power she considers "far more dangerous." Opponents are "not looking at the bigger picture. Here's 25 to 30 MW of wind and you go just up the river and there's 3500 MW of gas." No one seems too concerned about the negative environmental impacts of over reliance on gas, she complains. "When they drill for gas, roads get built and these roads make it easier for loggers to come in. Sure, gas is cleaner than coal, but it still releases a lot of carbon dioxide," she points out.
"Local environmentalists wanted to make this wind project a model of perfection," adds West. "They've already got 80-90% of what they wanted. Now they are asking for 95%. The remaining 5% could kill the project!"
When the modern wind power industry arrived on the scene in the United States in the mid 1970s, one of the technology's biggest boosters was the nation's environmental community. Many of these supporters of energy alternatives to utility owned coal and nuclear power plants moved into the previously unpopulated hills of California and elsewhere, installing small-scale wind turbines and photovoltaic panels in an effort to minimise the damage to the earth associated with modern living.
Pony-tailed tree huggers
As the wind power industry has matured into a utility-scale enterprise, many of these pony-tailed, tree-huggers have become the industry's biggest headaches. Grassroots environmental groups like the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society are often the last hurdle for well considered projects to clear after they have been blessed by government regulators.
Though the campaign against Kenetech's Columbia Hills project is being orchestrated from Washington D.C., the rules governing the hundreds of local chapters of the Audubon Society illustrate part of the problem facing wind developers trying to manoeuvre their way through the increasingly harsh regulatory and political landscape of North America. None of its chapters need to comply with the adopted public policies of the national Washington DC headquarters. Each chapter is an independent legal entity and can use its own lawyers to harass wind project developers.
Similar problems can occur with the Sierra Club, although its by-laws require its local chapters to follow national policy positions. In reality, local chapters often conflict. The most infamous example was California wind company Zond's proposal to build a wind farm to serve smoggy Los Angeles. The project was eventually killed in 1989 when the landowner -- whose family partially owns the Los Angeles Times -- financed an opposition campaign that enlisted the help of the Sierra Club. Though the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club voted to support the Zond project, another in the area voted to oppose. This bumped the decision up to the next level of Sierra Club decision making at the state level, which then voted to oppose. The project was abandoned after Zond had sunk more than $1 million into it.
The conflict between local and national policy is recognised. Rich Ferguson, Sierra Club's national energy chairman, is frequently called upon to provide the big picture for local chapters of the club raising a stink about potential avian impacts of wind power. Serving on the board of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CERT) -- which includes both other environmental groups and wind developers Zond and Kenetech -- Ferguson has tangled with the US Fish and Wildlife Service over issues such as Kenetech's proposals to replace older machines with newer, larger ones in the Altamont Pass. Ferguson supports Kenetech while the wildlife service has been against the project. He also played a role in gaining approval of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District's initial wind farm by working with local chapters of the club.
Simple lessons of PR
Though Ferguson thinks that killing the Zond proposal in 1989 was the right thing to do, he sympathises with the wind industry. But he points out that wind developers need to learn some simple public relations lessons. When Zond encountered bad press because a contractor caused some needless erosion at a project in Tehachapi, Zond's CEO Ken Karas called the Bureau of Land Management to try and smooth things out. "I told him his second call should have been to the local Sierra Club chapter. He told me that he never thought of that," Ferguson remarks.
Wind project opponents are often well-intentioned. But just as often they are fronting for other industries. In Montana, for example, a proposed 150 MW wind project, also to be developed by Kenetech, drew fierce opposition from Raymond Suitor, a local real estate developer, former executive with the Exxon oil company and the US representative of Country Guardian, a UK anti-wind group which has links to the nuclear power industry.
The wind industry, however, must shoulder part of the blame for problems with environmentalists. Controversy surrounding a Kenetech $200 million, 210 MW project in the Boundary Mountains of western Maine, for example, show that the troubled wind developer may have overstepped the bounds of ethics when it used heavy-handed tactics to gain project approval by Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC). LURC staff hostile to the project were removed upon the urging of staff of the governor, Angus King, who has close ties to Kenetech. A LURC commissioner resigned in protest over the handling of Kenetech's permit.
But those that oppose the project are also tainted. Though the wind farm was endorsed by the Maine Audubon Society -- the first time the state group had ever endorsed a power plant -- three other state chapters and the National Audubon Society have stepped in at this late date and filed a legal complaint which could further delay the project. These last minute threats irk Hap Ellis, Kenetech's manager of the siting process. He notes Kenetech eliminated 14 other potential sites from consideration after consulting with local environmentalists. "We chose the current site because the ridgelines had already been clear-cut twice," explains Ellis. The site is also highly remote, which translates into additional transmission costs for the company. None of the groups that now threaten to halt the project said a peep during the long LURC public hearing process, Ellis points out.
"We came in and did our homework," remarks Ellis. But despite gaining the strong support of the Conservation Law Foundation, the leading voice for environmentalists on energy issues in the New England area, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Club, the project still remains in limbo.
There are some hopeful signs on the horizon. According to Bill Whalen, Kenetech's point man on relations with environmentalists, the National Audubon Society's new president, John Flicker, "supports wind power if projects are properly sited." He claims Kenetech is working to garner greater support for wind at the national level of Audubon, hoping a shift in perception at the top will filter down to the local level.
Ironically, few raptors visit the Boundary Mountains. While Audubon bird watchers claim that thousands of migrating songbirds could be slaughtered by what they see as menacing machines, the fundamental issue in Maine revolves around appropriate land uses.
The two year old Renewables Northwest Project is the best regional example of how environmentalists are working together with the wind industry in an effort to develop long term guidelines for development, according to Randy Swisher of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). The environmentalist group that gets top pro-wind billing at national level is the Union of Concerned Scientists, says Swisher. "They have provided very solid, credible advocacy for the wind industry," he acknowledges. In the ongoing battle to save the federal wind energy production tax credit on Capitol Hill, UCS used a phone bank, targeting letters, telefaxes and calls in seven states, he points out.
Wenonah Hauter, a senior field representative with UCS, notes that she and other UCS staff often joke that they are "the unpaid sales staff of wind developers." And while UCS has been very effective in working hand-in-hand with companies such as Zond in Iowa to protect state laws requiring utilities to purchase power from renewable sources, tensions still exist between the industry and environmental groups. "Developers don't always understand the roles public interest groups can play," she says. UCS and its public interest allies are typically confrontational with utilities; wind developers, on the other hand, want to sell equipment to utilities and sometimes fret when they see anti-utility messages coming from environmentalists. "The tension here is more about what is the best way to promote the wind industry," adds Hauter.
Appropriately enough, UCS has been most active in the midsection of the country, the region which boasts the biggest potential for future wind energy development in the United States. Luckily, this is also the region where the wind industry enjoys strong support from environmental groups -- even among Audubon and Sierra Club members.
Asking for help
The success in garnering support for wind in states such as Texas and Minnesota is directly related to two factors: the industry has worked with environmental groups from the outset; and some of the best wind resource areas do not correspond with the migratory paths of raptors and other birds.
"Kenetech did Texas right," observes Tom "Smitty" Smith, executive director of Public Citizen, another group headquartered in Washington DC which has been a consistent supporter of wind and other renewable energy technologies over the years. Kenetech went into the local community to find an individual "who was a long term environmentalist that was able to bring a large number of folks together," continues Smith. This individual was Bob King, a former member of Public Citizen and Citizen Alert, groups which had credibility with grassroots activists. He set up meetings with local environmental groups in the Fort Davis region of West Texas, a region with prime wind resources. The basic message was this: Here's a technology that could do well in this area, but might have some environmental problems. We need your help to identify the best sites.
Dede Armentrout, regional vice president of the Audubon Society, is impressed. The wind industry allowed local environmentalists to choose a biologist they trusted to screen areas where raptors and other birds of concern might frequent. "We know the person we chose is scrupulous and detail-oriented -- he won't hedge the data," acknowledges Armentrout. She adds, "Kenetech has been really open. They seem to be endorsing a solution-oriented approach. I am optimistic and hopeful that we can bring this clean alternative to other forms of energy to Texas." King was also able to talk to local business interests, selling wind technology as a boost to tourism in this largely unpopulated corner of Texas.
Smith notes one of the biggest selling points for wind in Texas -- the heart of America's oil and natural gas industry -- is that the electric utilities are the largest source of air pollution in the state, contributing 30% of the Texas' carbon dioxide and other global warming gases. "More than 70% of Texans have said they would pay more for non-polluting forms of energy," concludes Smith.
While a legacy of air pollution and massive consumption of electricity has fuelled support for wind power in Minnesota, a long standing environmental ethic is the key reason wind enjoys support in this state, the nation's leading new market for wind power. "The environmental community of Minnesota is supportive of renewable technologies and especially enthusiastic about wind energy," reports Michael Noble, executive director of Minnestoans For an Energy-Efficient Economy. Even local chapters of the Audubon Society have supported development on Buffalo Ridge in western Minnesota, the best wind resource in the state and site of a 25 MW Kenetech facility.
Noble notes that a recent breakthrough to help future siting in the state is an agreement between Northern States Power, the largest utility buyer in the region, and Kenetech, the largest wind developer. The agreement, which will become a part of all future development permits (including the proposed 100 MW project by Zond), calls for a comprehensive monitoring plan for the region and proposes to set standards for public reporting of avian injury data and a co-operative funding process for all developers in the Buffalo Ridge area.
The primary reason for the strong support for wind development in the state's best wind resource area is lack of birds. "If developers proposed to build a wind farm in the southeastern portion of the state, I can guarantee they would get absolutely no support," says Noble. That area, the state's runner-up wind resource region, hugs the Mississippi River valley. Not only is it a major bald eagle migration pathway, but is home to millions of waterfowl and valued by local residents for its scenic values.
In the final analysis, the relationship between wind power and the environmental community in America is in a transitional phase. Groups such as Audubon and the Sierra Club still support the concept of wind power; they just have some trouble with siting issues. These will never disappear, though they may diminish as new research being generated by the group of scientists working with Kenetech finally come up with some answers to why birds collide with particular turbines. But even if new approaches like painting blades or relying on tubular towers become standard in the industry, there will always be individuals that will oppose projects.
Perhaps one favour the new Republican majority in the US Congress could do for wind power is push through long overdue reforms regarding the ability of environmental groups to file frivolous lawsuits. Even folks such as Peter West, a lifelong environmentalist, remarks that his experience in Washington has convinced him that obstructionist techniques employed by some environmentalists "come dangerously close to extortion." This is one of the few times in his life where he agrees with conservatives on the need to reduce reliance on the legal system to fuel endless delays of development. He concludes: "There is no way to satisfy some opponents, many of which remind me of the Luddites. It is a shame that they can kill something that's obviously good for the environment."