Final approval of Calif. project marks renewables milestone

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has authorized construction of the largest wind farm project on federal land in California, a major milestone in BLM’s ongoing efforts to significantly expand wind power production in the Golden State.

Salazar signed a record of decision (ROD) late Friday for the Ocotillo Express Wind Energy Facility, which calls for stringing together 112 wind power turbines across about 10,000 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Southern California’s Imperial County.

The project, proposed by San Francisco-based Pattern Energy Group LP, would have a maximum capacity to produce up to 315 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 94,500 homes. The company estimates the wind farm will offset more than 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide or the equivalent of the annual emissions of 65,000 cars.

Pattern Energy Group, which earlier this year finalized a power purchase agreement with San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E), plans to begin construction this month and bring the plant online by the end of the year.

“Pattern is proud to become part of the Imperial Valley,” Glen Hodges, Pattern Energy Group’s senior project manager, said in an emailed statement today sent to Greenwire. “Pattern is focused on being a responsible community partner by respecting the land, its resources and the people of the Imperial Valley.

The project Salazar approved is a dramatically scaled-back version from the 465 MW proposal originally submitted by Pattern Energy Group that called for 155 wind turbines over nearly 13,000 acres (Greenwire, March 13).

Pattern Energy Group and BLM worked together to reduce the project’s footprint by 2,285 acres after consultation with as many as 14 area American Indian tribes, and after an extensive archaeological and cultural survey uncovered numerous ancient tribal artifacts and sacred locations. As a condition of the ROD, these acres are formally designated “as unsuitable for future wind energy development,” according to the agency.

Pattern Energy Group was able to reduce the proposed project’s footprint by agreeing to install more powerful wind turbines that can produce more megawatts per turbine, according to BLM.

The final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project released in March concluded that the scaled-back alternative would result “in the complete avoidance of physical effects to all archaeological resources identified during the archaeological survey.”

“We have heard from members of Congress, local and state officials and members of the community who feel passionately about this project,” said Jim Kenna, BLM California state director. “After careful consideration and environmental review, we have worked with interested parties to create a project that protects the important cultural values of the area and produces clean energy on American soil to power the population centers of Southern California.”

Ocotillo Express would be a major milestone in BLM’s ongoing efforts to significantly expand wind power production on federal land in California. Not only would it be the largest wind farm on BLM land, it also would mark the first time the agency has approved construction of a wind project in California since 2005.

The Ocotillo Express project would connect directly to the Sunrise Powerlink 500-kilovolt transmission line, which would cross the proposed wind farm site, allowing the plant to ship electricity to load centers across Southern California (Greenwire, March 13).

Pattern Wind Energy has agreed to a number of formal steps designed to address concerns about wildlife habitat fragmentation and potential effects to birds, including raptors and golden eagles.

The project would also displace a number of sensitive species, including the flat-tailed horned lizard, burrowing owl and peninsular bighorn sheep. Pattern Energy Group has developed a detailed “avian and bat protection plan” and “eagle conservation plan.”

For bighorn sheep, the project would directly affect some critical sheep habitat, though the land in question is unoccupied. The company has agreed to a mitigation plan that includes hiring on-site biologists during construction and revegetating areas after construction within the essential habitat area

The company would also install a 50-foot-tall “biological monitoring observation tower” offering high-resolution video and night-vision images to help monitor bighorn sheep migrating through the area. The tower would also be equipped with an advanced radar system designed to track sheep as well as migratory birds, raptors and eagles, allowing the wind farm to power down specific turbines when birds are approaching, according to BLM and company officials.