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New guidelines may become key obstacle -- All sides now seeking solution to California birds problem

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California's reputation for cutting-edge environmental policy has become a two-sided sword. While the state is far and away the US leader in wind power generation at roughly 2100 MW and is working to implement some aggressive renewable energy goals, it is also mired in an ongoing and potentially crippling debate over bird mortalities in wind farms

Now, a new report prepared for the California Energy Commission details a strong link between bird deaths and where wind farms may -- or may not -- be sited in the future. While the report is intended in part to help wind development, it could actually become a deterrent, with state-wide guidelines on bird protection threatening to become a key obstacle.

"We don't really need another set of guidelines," says Nancy Rader of the California Wind Energy Association. "We believe the existing guidelines are sound and that the local processes are working. I'm convinced that the energy commission believes state-wide siting guidelines are meant to assist the wind industry by reducing the chances of litigation and that sort of thing. I think the intention is pro-wind but it won't necessarily work that way."

In large part, the new Integrated Energy Policy Report blames California's complex renewables portfolio standard process for slower than expected development of new energy in a state that ranks as the sixth-largest economy in the world. The report also assesses the challenges of achieving a 33% level of renewables by 2020 and pushes to establish a more transparent and standardised method for establishing least-cost, best-fit criteria.

Talking about it

This month, an invitation-only conference on birds, bats and wind power in Los Angeles will attempt to sort out many of the nagging issues between wind developers and bird protection groups. Much of the conference agenda will concern state-wide guidelines. "We want to offer what we know," says Laurie Jodziewicz of the American Wind Energy Association. "A two-day workshop in 2004 did a lot to let people know that avian impacts at wind projects are not such a big concern. It's not something that should stop wind projects and we have data to back that up. We intend to continue with that dialog." Energy commissioners and staff are attending the event, along with scientists, environmentalists, bird protectionists, wind energy developers and representatives of various other agencies.

At the forefront of the debate is a longstanding battle over the 79-square-mile, 5600-turbine Altamont Pass site, where Alameda County recently decreed an elaborate plan to shut down varying combinations of the machines for months at a time in an effort to assess bird mortalities (Windpower Monthly, November 2005). The 13-year experiment is likely to cause a 10% decrease in revenues for a dozen different owners in an area that first started producing wind power in the early 1980s.

"What we have with Altamont is a situation with documented problems regarding raptor kills and it stems from Altamont being the first generation of wind farms," says Paul Vercruyssen of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, the California non-profit agency organizing the Los Angeles conference. "When Altamont was first built, there was basically no thought given to bird impacts and now it's a high profile news story that has started to colour the wind industry in general in California."

Anything that comes out of the conference will not have legal weight, but will be treated as a strong recommendation while major wind developments, like the massive Tehachapi region with more than 4000 MW of wind potential, move forward.

Not another Altamont

"We have to assure people as we develop more wind that we're not going to end up with another Altamont," Rader says. "There's no indication that we have anything near another Altamont anywhere in California. But we're still going to have a conversation all year long about new sitings and birds."

Ill will from Altamont has rubbed off on other projects. "Many companies are very thorough in their impact studies and other companies don't even want to acknowledge that the problem exists," says Julia Levin of Audubon California, a bird protection group. "We just wish all companies were equally responsive. She says that Audubon strongly supports wind power. "The purpose of state-wide guidelines is to reduce the amount of lawsuits and help wind power move forward. Just as there's a range of how much is too much on the wind side of regulations, the same is true on the wildlife side."

All sides express their determination to find an acceptable resolution. "Wind energy is a commercially viable energy source, but the industry needs to find a way to make its businesses operate and keep costs consistent," Vercruyssen says. "Most people don't realise how much coal California uses and that's part of the debate. That's the alternative we're looking at."

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