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The Altamont Pass -- good for renewable energy, bad for birds

Judy Silber
Wildlife biologist Doug Bell birdwatching at the Altamont Pass

If you remember the early 1970s, you remember the long gas lines during the Middle East oil embargo. The crisis was a sharp reminder of U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Soon after, the government began investing in alternative energy.

California entrepreneurs saw potential in the gusty winds that blew out at the Altamont Pass, between the Central Valley and Bay Area. By the mid-’80s, the Altamont was the country’s biggest wind farm. To many, the turbines were more than a new technology. They were symbols of hope, a sign of progress and a world that no longer relied on fossil fuels.

Wind turbines at the Altamont Pass
Credit Judy Silber

But fast forward 30 years and the Altamont is a blight on the reputation of the burgeoning wind industry. The turbines have killed more than a hundred thousand birds.

Wildlife biologist Doug Bell knows the Altamont intimately. Since 2005, he’s carried out wildlife studies for the East Bay Regional Parks District.

“As we look out on the Altamont, we see propeller blades from turbines of all sizes rotating,” Bell says.

“And so one of the first impressions that one gets is that it’s a busy landscape.”

Bell is showing me around. We stand at the crest of a hill, and look out. As occurs on many days in the Altamont, the winds are blowing hard. From April through September, warm temperatures rise up from the Central Valley and mix with the cooler air of the Bay Area causing steady winds of between 15 to 30 miles per hour.

That makes the 37,000-acre area ideal for wind energy. All around us are wind turbines, of various shapes and sizes, all fairly large by human standards, whose blades turn in the wind. The newest models have sleek poles that rise 465 feet into the air. In contrast, the older turbines are a hodgepodge of shorter structures with smaller capacities for generating electricity.

In addition to the turbines, we also see red-tailed hawks and golden eagles soaring high in the sky. They, too, like the wind.

“It’s quite a good day for soaring birds to be out here,” Bell remarks.

That explains the clash between turbines and birds.

Bird mortality is an inexact science, to say the least. The latest county report found that from 2005 to 2012, an average of 4600 birds are killed each year, and some scientists like Bell believe the numbers are much higher. The older turbines are the greatest threat to birds. Some have lattice-like towers that attract nests. Many are also located in tight strings along ridges, where birds soar.

The Altamont is a migration corridor and Bell says a few hundred species either live here year-round, or stop over on their way north or south.

He starts to list them for me.  

“Red-winged blackbird, tricolored blackbird, Brewer’s blackbird, European starling, common raven, the meadowlark, horned lark, grasshopper sparrow, savannah sparrow…”

Also raptors like red-tailed hawks and golden eagles that feed on prey hidden in the grasslands: They are the predators at the top of the food chain. The county report suggests an average of 900 raptors are killed each year, but other studies place the number closer to 2,000.

“Oh. Wow. See that activity going on?” Bell asks me, as he peers through his binoculars.

“There’s one golden eagle and two red-tailed hawks. From here, it looks like they’re close to the turbine as they swirl around.”

The hawks and golden eagle dance around the long whirling blades.

I ask if they are too close to the blades. When Bell answers, it’s with the tone of a parent who worries about his children.

“Sometimes they will go right through the plane of the rotor and that’s really too close ...Yes, of course it is,” he says.

We get in Bell’s car and drive down a dirt road with wind turbines to our right and left. He scans the area for dead or wounded birds. I ask if he sees anything.

“No, but I’m always looking,” he says.

Every now and again, Bell rescues a wounded golden eagle. In 2012, the county reports that turbine blades killed 40. Other years were worse, with as many as 70 killed in a year. And that doesn’t county the number of eagles that may have been wounded, but wandered away from turbines where they couldn’t be found.

No matter the numbers, by law this should not be happening, says Mike Lynes, director of public policy at Audubon California.

“The golden eagle is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as well as the Golden and Bald Eagle Protection Act,” Lynes says.

“And by protected, I mean that you’re not supposed to kill them.”

The federal government recently issued a permit to a wind farm in Solano County that allows for the accidental killing of golden eagles. But no such documents have yet been issued for the Altamont.

In 2005, four local Audubon chapters sued Alameda County for permitting operations that kill so many birds. A settlement required a 50 percent reduction in bird mortality for four raptor species, including the golden eagle.

“The sense was, well, if we can do something about these particular birds to reduce the mortality for them, then we’ll be benefiting all the other birds,” Lynes says.

The companies removed the most harmful structures. They also agreed to turn off wind turbines for a few months a year. Most people agreed it’s helped, but it’s up for debate whether companies have achieved the 50 percent reduction in mortality.

Either way, environmental advocates argue not enough has been done. They say the Altamont needs an overhaul. That the older turbines should be replaced with updated, safer models.

The Altamont’s problems have received a lot of publicity.

“Wherever we go, people have this image that wind projects kill a lot of birds,” says Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Association. “It’s because of the headlines generated from the Altamont.”

Rader says the Altamont makes the rest of the wind industry look bad. And that’s even though construction of new wind farms now requires compliance with strict environmental standards, the kind that weren’t around when the Altamont was first built.

“Okay, we’re not going to deny too many eagles are being killed in the Altamont,” she says “We are addressing it. We’re making sure it doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

“But let’s get real,” she adds.

Rader points to other industries, which she says are much worse for birds.

“Go after the oil pits. Go after coal-power plants. Go after housing developments that are destroying habitat. Stop picking on the wind industry, which is really not responsible for the big part of the problem.”

Rader, like just about everyone, would like to see the Altamont’s track record improve. But on average, each new turbine costs close to $2 million. And financing is complicated with many moving parts -- utility contracts, tax credits and government approvals.

Still, time could be running out for the old turbines. Their permits are set to expire in 2018 unless the county issues extensions that keep the status quo.

Doug Bell worries about just that happening. Then, he says, the situation will never change.

Back at the wind farm, Bell and I are touring our last stop in the Altamont.

“Do you see the big gray columns on the ground and the white propellers? So they’re in the process of dismantling this wind farm,” says Bell.

We’ve stopped to view a wind farm built in 1985 that now looks like a turbine graveyard. The owner doesn’t plan to install new models. The East Bay Regional Parks District owns the land, just not its wind rights. Bell hopes the District will buy those and retire the land forever.

“Hopefully some of this landscape will be converted back to its natural curvatures, with the turbines gone. That’s a good thing,” says Bell.

If he had his way, the whole of the Altamont Pass would be as quiet as this. But the area generates about 500 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 200,000 homes. And so, even with the controversy, the wind farms are likely to stay.

That leaves Bell scanning the skies for birds -- and counting the ones that don’t survive.


CrosscurrentsRenewable energywind powerbirdsCrosscurrents