The wind energy company that received a controversial extension in March to continue operating hundreds of old wind turbines in the Altamont Pass is now planning to shut them down, according to an email KQED has obtained. The company might also be replacing them with fewer new turbines, a move that would make its operation safer for birds.
Altamont Winds, Inc. (AWI), one of the largest operators in the East Bay’s Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in an Oct. 23 email that it is permanently shutting down all its turbines there by Sunday. The company operates 828 turbines in the Altamont.
The sudden move is important, environmentalists say, because hundreds of birds die at the Altamont each year after getting hit by wind turbine blades, colliding with windmills, or becoming trapped inside them.
“It’s a good outcome for birds in the Altamont,” says Michael Lynes, director of public policy for Audubon California, in Sacramento.
Two other wind companies that own turbines in the Altamont, NextEra and EDF Renewable Energy, are replacing hundreds of old turbines with fewer, more powerful and more carefully sited turbines, a measure referred to as “repowering” that biologists say can reduce bird deaths.
By keeping turbines out of low-lying areas of the Altamont, for example, companies could help golden eagles, says biologist Joe DiDonato, who is part of a team that has been monitoring 18 of these birds through radio transmitters. Golden eagles can hit a turbine as they fly low in the terrain in search of prey.
“They’re using that hill as a camouflage to slip around the corner and maybe grab an unsuspecting squirrel,” said DiDonato on a recent visit to the Altamont Pass area, as he pointed to a golden eagle flying nearby. “If they’re coming around the low end of a ridge and the wind picks them up, it could push them towards a wind turbine blade as well.”
Concern About Birds Said to Prompt Closure
AWI’s permit from Alameda County had required the company to remove its turbines this year, in order to reduce bird deaths. But the company instead applied for a three-year extension to the county, which oversees operation of most of the 78-square-mile Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area.
In a letter to Alameda County, Jill Birchell, special agent in charge of the USFWS’ Office of Law Enforcement for California and Nevada wrote that turbines “owned and operated” by AWI in the Altamont had been associated with the death or injury of 67 golden eagles between 2004 and 2014. She recommended that the county deny AWI’s request to extend its operation permit for its turbines.
But on March 24, the county’s board of supervisors gave AWI a controversial extension that allowed the Tracy wind company to continue operating its old-generation turbines until 2018.
Abruptly last week, on Oct. 23, AWI vice president Bill Damon sent an email to the USFWS in Sacramento informing the agency of its decision to close down all its Altamont turbines by Sunday.
“The reduction of avian impacts was a primary factor that influenced our decision to discontinue operating our Altamont wind farms,” Damon wrote in his email. KQED has obtained a copy of the email, but neither Damon nor AWI president Rick Koebbe returned calls and emails seeking confirmation.
‘Black Eye’ for Wind Energy
In the early 1980s, wind companies installed 7,000 turbines in the Altamont Pass. Shortly after the wind farms opened, scientists discovered the turbines were killing hundreds of birds of prey each year.
“The Altamont was sort of seen as a black eye for renewable energy,” says the Audubon’s Lynes, “because anytime someone was proposing a new wind farm, it would raise the specter of the Altamont Pass.”
In 2005, several local chapters of the Audubon Society, as well as other environmental groups, sued to force wind companies to protect birds in the Altamont. The settlement reached in 2007 required Alameda County and wind companies to cut bird mortality in half by 2009. To that end, companies agreed to remove turbines that biologists deemed to be most dangerous to birds. They also began to shut down their turbines during the winter months, when electricity demand is lowest and bird activity highest.
The Altamont Pass has only about 3,000 turbines now. But statistics compiled by the county in 2014 show bird mortality has decreased by only 25 to 40 percent, depending on the species.
AWI, which is based in Tracy, has applied for a permit from Alameda County to replace 511 of its turbines with 33 new turbines, says Sandra Rivera, of the Alameda County Planning Department. Rivera says the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments is scheduled to hear AWI’s request for this repowering permit on Nov. 19.
The new 33 turbines would together produce as much energy as the 511 old turbines, a total of 54 MW. This is equivalent to one sixth of the Altamont’s total current capacity.
Rivera calls the news that AWI plans to shut down all its turbines and seek a permit to replace most of them “a big deal.”
“They (AWI) will be in sync with the rest of the repowering,” Rivera says. “And the old-gen turbines, which are known to cause more fatalities, will be removed.”
The county requires companies to remove any turbines they shut down within a year of doing so, says Rivera.
“Only as we do the careful repowering can we hope to reduce the overall kill rates of golden eagles,” says Doug Bell, wildlife program manager at the East Bay Regional Park District. “Not only should energy production be sustainable in terms of carbon off-sets; it should also be sustainable in terms of the wildlife and the local impacts.”
Golden Eagles Better Protected
Golden eagles are of particular concern in the Altamont Pass, which is part of the densest nesting area for these raptors in the world, Bell says. According to Alameda County estimates, wind turbines at Altamont killed some 35 golden eagles in 2013.
“The Altamont is killing more eagles than the local population can reproduce,” says Bell, who does research on golden eagles. “It’s taking out more youngsters than they can produce and replace themselves with. Their population is going down the drain.”
Golden eagles are protected by federal law and it’s illegal to kill a single eagle. Wind energy has tripled in the country in the past seven years and the federal government has stepped up enforcement of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The Department of Justice, with help from the USFWS, has prosecuted two wind energy companies—Duke Energy Renewables and PacifiCorp Energy—for the killing of golden eagles and other birds on their wind farms in Wyoming.
And in 2014 the USFWS awarded its first so-called eagle “take” permit. These permits allow wind energy companies to kill a small number of golden eagles each year.
“The prosecution of those two companies certainly sent a message to companies across the country that the Service will, and can, prosecute companies for violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Act,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) spokesperson Scott Flaherty.
The USFWS has 16 open investigations on wind energy companies around the country, Flaherty says.
The agency has opened a criminal investigation of one company doing business in the Altamont concerning its turbines’ “take” of golden eagles, Birchell said in an email in July. Birchell wouldn’t say which company the agency was investigating.
Upon hearing that AWI has told the USFWS it will shut down all its turbines, Bell, the golden eagle researcher, says he is "relieved.”