Plan to shutter bird-killing Calif. turbines draws skepticism

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The backers of a controversial California wind farm blamed for killing thousands of birds over the past three decades have announced they are shutting down the facility, earning cautious praise and plenty of skepticism from conservation groups and federal regulators.

The Altamont Winds project located in one of the nation’s heaviest winter bird migration corridors, Altamont Pass, shut off all 828 wind turbines last weekend. The 83-megawatt wind farm and others in the area are required to shut down from Nov. 1 to Feb. 15, 2016, during the height of the bird migration season.

But the wind farm will remain shut off, according to a three-sentence email the company sent last month to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Southwest regional office.

Though Alameda County last spring authorized the facility to continue operating into 2018, “we have decided to permanently shut down and cease operations of 100 percent of our wind turbines,” effective Nov. 1, wrote Bill Damon, Altamont Winds Inc.’s vice president.

“The reduction of avian impacts was a primary factor that influenced our decision to discontinue operating our Altamont wind farms,” he added.

The plant will remain closed apparently until the decades-old turbines that are blamed for the avian mortalities are replaced with 33 modern turbines that would be strategically placed outside of peak bird flight pathways but have the same electricity output.

But no one is sure whether Altamont Winds’ plans include repowering the facility with the new turbines. The Tracy, Calif.-based company has not responded to attempts by some regulators and various media outlets to get a comment on the issue.

Damon did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

But FWS considers the email from Damon to be an “official document” and expects the facility to close, said Jody Holzworth, an FWS spokeswoman in Sacramento, Calif.

“It’s hopefully good news, but no one has been able to contact the company and get verification,” Holzworth said. “They wrote an official email to us, so why would they write a letter like that and not actually do it?”

Alameda County has jurisdiction over the operation of the wind farm. A county zoning meeting is scheduled Nov. 19 to consider Altamont Winds’ proposal to amend its conditional use permit to repower the facility with the 33 new wind turbines, said Andrew Young, a planner with the Alameda County Planning Department.

But Young said the county is not sure whether the company plans to move forward with the repowering option. The only thing county officials are sure of is they “do not expect any of those 828 turbines to be restarted,” Young said.

That’s fine with conservation groups, which have long targeted Altamont Winds’ wind farm for its impacts to birds.

The National Audubon Society says the wind farm killed 67 golden eagles between 2004 and 2014, as well as thousands of other birds.

The Altamont Winds power plant and several other wind facilities in Altamont Pass were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and were among the first commercial-scale wind farms in the country.

The estimated 3,000 turbines operating in Altamont Pass are estimated to kill thousands of birds every year. Wind power operators in the region, including NextEra Energy Inc., have either replaced their older turbines with fewer modern turbines or are in the process of doing so. But regulators say the numbers of bird deaths in the region have already started to decline, thanks to the work that has been done.

Indeed, the decision by Altamont Winds comes at a time of heightened concerns nationwide among government regulators and conservation groups about the impacts of the growing number of wind turbines on birds, especially sensitive bird species like golden eagles, raptors and other migratory bird species.

Mike Lynes, director of public policy for Audubon California, said while group leaders are very happy that Altamont Winds has announced it will shut down the 828 turbines, they are not confident about the company’s sincerity.

Altamont Winds in 2005 struck a deal with Alameda County to phase out 25 percent of its old turbines by 2013 (Greenwire, March 24).

But Lynes notes that as that deadline approached, the company asked for and received a two-year extension from the county, in exchange for agreeing to shutter all 828 turbines this year.

Again, as that deadline approached, the company received a three-year extension in March from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

“Altamont Winds has never expressed a sincere concern about bird deaths in the past,” Lynes said. “But if they’ve had a change of heart, that’s great to hear. And if they want to do a responsible repowering, we’re happy to work with them.”