Federal tax credit, condors test latest large-scale Calif. project

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, July 2, 2012

The Obama administration has taken the first major step toward approving a wind farm project in California that would cover nearly 3,200 acres of already-disturbed desert flatlands, avoiding culturally significant landscapes that have slowed other renewables projects in the state.

But proponents of the 318-megawatt Alta East Wind Project say it might never break ground if Congress fails to extend a lucrative production tax credit set to expire at year’s end. And Bureau of Land Management officials say project backers must still devise a suitable plan to avoid impacts to endangered condors and golden eagles.

At issue is today’s Federal Register notice announcing that BLM has completed a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Alta East Wind Project, which proposes to string together as many as 106 wind turbines across more than 2,000 acres managed by BLM and more than 1,100 acres of private land in Kern County.

The project proposed by Alta Windpower Development LLC would have the capacity to generate enough electricity to power about 111,000 homes.

The draft EIS is open for a 90-day public comment period running through Sept. 27, said Erin Curtis, a BLM spokeswoman in Sacramento, Calif.

BLM plans to issue a final EIS by December and a record of decision (ROD) approving the project by early next year, said Jeff Childers, the BLM project manager overseeing the federal review of the project.

Alta East would be another major milestone in BLM’s ongoing efforts to significantly expand wind power production on federal land in California. If built as proposed, it would be the largest wind farm on federal land in the state, and only the second wind farm BLM has approved for construction in California since 2005

“This is one of the larger wind projects the BLM has analyzed in California and is part of a larger plan for wind energy development in Kern County,” Curtis said.

Project proponents want to complete construction and bring the wind farm online in 2013, said Greg Wetstone, vice president for government affairs for New York-based Terra-Gen Power, which owns Alta Windpower Development.

But Wetstone warned that even if the project receives final approval by BLM next year, it might never be built if Congress does not extend the production tax credit set to expire at year’s end.

The wind industry says the federal tax incentive has helped spark a boom in wind development and has warned that without such federal incentives, it will be difficult to maintain the current pace of both investment and development in renewable energy plants — including the Alta East Wind Project.

“This is an important project in growing the local economy and helping the state meet its renewable energy goals,” Wetstone said in an emailed statement to Greenwire. “We hope to bring it online in 2013 but, like all other wind development next year, it will only move forward if Congress acts to extend the Production Tax Credit.”

 Growing wind power

Alta East is the fourth commercial-scale wind project across the West to reach the draft EIS stage in the past 12 months.

BLM last month released a draft EIS for Houston-based BP Wind Energy North America Inc.’s proposed 500-MW Mohave County Wind Farm in northwest Arizona, which would string together as many as 283 wind turbines across nearly 39,000 acres of BLM land and nearly 9,000 acres of Bureau of Reclamation land. It would have the capacity to produce enough electricity to power as many as 175,000 homes in Arizona, Nevada and California (Greenwire, May 8).

BLM in January released a draft EIS for the Searchlight Wind Energy Project in southeast Nevada, which would be the state’s largest wind farm on federal land, with a capacity to produce 200 MW of electricity — enough to power about 70,000 homes (Land Letter, Jan. 26).

And last summer, BLM issued a draft EIS for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project, which proposes to place up to 1,000 turbines on 320,000 acres of BLM and ranch lands in southeast Wyoming. It would be the largest wind farm in North America, capable of producing enough electricity to power 800,000 homes (E&ENews PM, July 22, 2011).

The Chokecherry, Mohave County and Searchlight proposals have been designated by BLM as 2012 “priority projects” that are targeted to complete the federal permitting process by year’s end.

Childers said Alta East is not a 2012 priority project because it was determined the project could not finish the permitting process by the end of the year.

The Alta East project area has a number of advantages, including the fact that several wind farms are already operating in the area, and Kern County has designated the region where Alta East is located as the “Tehachapi Wind Resource Area” on the county’s east side.

Indeed, a small wind farm once operated on a 640-acre section of the proposed project site north of State Route 58, Childers said. “Terra-Gen completed the decommissioning and got rid of the old turbines and cleaned the site up,” he said.

Environmental roadblocks

But Alta East is moving through the federal permitting pipeline at a time when other major renewables projects in the Southern California desert region have stalled because of financial problems or lawsuits filed by American Indian activists and environmental groups.

Indeed, the draft EIS for Alta East comes less than two months after the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation filed a federal lawsuit against the Interior Department to stop the 315 MW Ocotillo Express Wind Energy Facility, proposed to be built on more than 10,000 acres of BLM land in Southern California’s Imperial County (Greenwire, May 15).

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed an ROD last month authorizing San Francisco-based Pattern Energy Group LP to begin construction of the 112 wind turbines this fall and bring the plant online as early as year’s end (Greenwire, May 14).

The tribe said in the lawsuit that the project — the largest approved wind project on public land in California — would cause “irreparable injury” by destroying “culturally and visually significant lands and resources.” It accuses BLM of essentially ignoring the tribe’s concerns.

The Ocotillo Express project was a scaled-down version of the original proposal, a move proponents say sought to avoid culturally significant landmarks. BLM consulted with as many as 14 area American Indian tribes, including the Quechan Tribe, and cut more than 2,200 acres from the project boundaries after an extensive archaeological and cultural survey uncovered numerous ancient tribal artifacts and sacred locations.

There do not appear to be any significant tribal issues associated with the Alta East project, Childers said.

Site surveys indicate that “this area doesn’t have any prehistoric or historic resources out there,” he said. And BLM has been in contact with at least five area tribal organizations as far back as October 2009 concerning the placement of meteorological towers at the site to gauge wind resource potential.

There are, however, potentially significant environmental hurdles to clear.

The area is home to endangered condors, and Terra-Gen Power will have to develop a bird and bat conservation plan to reduce impacts, Childers said. There are also golden eagles in the area, and a separate plan will need to be devised under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act that will have to pass muster with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.

“That’s our biggest obstacle, trying to understand and address this resource conflict,” he said.

The condor and golden eagle issue concerns Ileene Anderson, a staff biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles.

Anderson said the key to avoiding impacts to condors and eagles might ultimately come down to properly siting and spacing the project’s 106 turbines. She said she is worried about the cumulative impacts of all the wind development in the Kern County region.

“The project is down on the flatlands below Tehachapi Pass, where there’s a lot of wind, and they’re trying to muzzle it in with other wind farms,” she said. “But it is dense, and one of my biggest questions and concerns remains: Are we building this wall of wind turbines where it will make it harder for migratory birds to sort of thread the needle and not be impacted?”

Childers, however, said he is optimistic.

“I think that every [resource] conflict can be mitigated and understood, and we just have to pick the path of least resistance and whack through it,” he said. “I’d like to think we can get this project done.