The Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Chapter

Sierra Club Yodeler
ISSN 8750-5681
Published bi-monthly by the
San Francisco Bay Chapter
Sierra Club

Bird deaths and the lessons for wind power of Altamont Pass

The Altamont Pass Wind Power Resource Area (see March 2006 Yodeler, page 11) provides a cautionary lesson on what can go wrong when impacts are not studied and fully considered before projects are constructed. Even for the most vital renewable-energy projects, it is essential to study and mitigate their environmental costs.

For almost 30 years the turbines in eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties have covered nearly 80 square miles of rolling grassland in the world's largest wind farm. The price, however, has been the deaths of tens of thousands of birds that collided with the turbines.

In Bird Mortality at the Altamont Pass Wind Power Resource Area (NREL/SR-500-36973, August 2005), K. Shawn Smallwood and Carl G. Thelander estimated that 570 - 835 raptors are killed in the pass annually, including 28 - 34 golden eagles, 196 - 237 red-tailed hawks, 54 - 136 American kestrels, and 181 - 457 burrowing owls. For all birds, the researchers estimated that 1,870 - 4,310 birds of 31 species were killed annually. More recent data indicate even higher mortality.

Since 2003, several Bay Area environmental groups have challenged some of the operations in the Altamont. There has been conflict among the wind companies, the county, and state and federal agencies, and even among the environmental groups themselves.

Hasty decisions - controversial results

Wind power came to the Altamont Pass in a hurry following the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, when the federal government incentivized wind and solar energy developments throughout the country. By the 1980s Altamont Pass had become the largest wind facility in the world. Collectively its 5,000 densely packed turbines have a permitted generation capacity of 580 megawatts (MW). This substantial output is produced without emissions, without dams or diversion of rivers, without mining and transportation costs. Some argue that the Altamont wind resource has saved human lives and wildlife by reducing the emissions that would have been created from other sources of energy.

Yet these same operations have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of birds, including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, and burrowing owls. Many of the species are protected by state and federal laws and regulations, including the California and federal Endangered Species Acts and the Migratory Bird Treaty. Certain "fully protected" and migratory species, including golden eagles, cannot legally be "taken" (i.e. killed) under any circumstances, and current laws do not allow agencies to permit the killings in a licensing or permitting process.

Suits and a settlement

In 2003 and 2004, Alameda County, without conducting any environmental review, reissued permits to several wind companies operating in the Altamont Pass. The Center for Biological Diversity challenged the permits and eventually filed suit, charging the wind companies with unfair business practices and violations of the public trust for their bird-killing. CBD's lawsuit was dismissed in Superior Court. Although the California Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, its decision included the significant ruling that California's wildlife, including the birds of the Altamont, are protected under the state's Public Trust Doctrine and that the state is required to protect them on behalf of all Californians. CBD's case is being considered for review by the California Supreme Court.

In 2005 several local Audubon chapters and Californians for Renewable Energy (CARE) also filed suit, alleging that the county had violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it reissued the permits. In 2007 these parties reached a settlement whereby the wind companies agreed to reduce avian mortality in the Altamont Pass by 50% by November 2009, to seasonally shut down turbines (this gradually escalated to a full shut-down of operations for 3.5 winter months), to remove turbines identified as particularly dangerous to birds, and to participate in the preparation of a Natural Communities Conservation Plan (NCCP) or similar conservation plan to be approved by the state. CBD, the Altamont Pass Scientific Review Committee (SRC), and the office of the California attorney general opposed this agreement, arguing that the settlement actually reduced avian protections and minimized the role of the SRC.

In any case, it soon became clear that the wind companies were not honoring the agreement. They failed to remove several high-risk turbines by March 2007, and had not removed derelict and non-operating turbines that were continuing to contribute to bird deaths. Eventually, after months of negotiations, the wind companies agreed to remove more derelict turbines annually, to remove several more high-risk turbines, to encourage the SRC to identify additional high-risk turbines for potential removal, and to fund an independent monitor to ensure future compliance with the settlement.

It is now generally accepted that avian mortality in the Altamont Pass will not be reduced by 50% by November 2009. In June 2008 the Altamont Pass Avian Mortality Monitoring Group found that avian mortality had increased since 2005 for most target species, except golden eagles (for which mortality decreased by 35%).

Potential solutions

Audubon, CARE, and the wind companies must now prepare a new plan with specific measures to reduce mortality. Audubon intends to require the specific measures recommended by the SRC and previously ignored by the wind companies, including further removal of dangerous turbines, longer seasonal shutdowns, and where possible, replacing old turbines with safer models.

In another outcome of the Audubon/CARE lawsuit, most of the wind companies in Alameda County are currently engaged in developing a NCCP. A draft plan and associated Environmental Impact Report are scheduled to be released in 2010 and completed by 2011. By law the plan may be approved by the California Department of Fish and Game only if it contributes to the recovery of affected species.

The siting of new and relocated turbines will be scrutinized carefully, because the placement of a turbine on a certain ridge, or a certain part of a ridge, may significantly contribute to its deadliness. Biologists have developed several maps and models analyzing winds, bird flight paths, and topography to determine less risky sites.

Replacing old turbines with newer models may reduce bird collisions. A single modern turbine may replace up to 20 older units, and the sheer reduction of density of turbines appears to provide some hope. The new turbines, however, appear to kill more bats, which may be killed not by collisions with the turbines but by sudden air-pressure changes near the turbines that may cause internal bleeding. The NCCP will evaluate impacts on birds, bats, terrestrial mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and plants, and recommend conservation measures or mitigations.

Applying Altamont's lessons elsewhere

If we don't reduce carbon emissions now, the losses to wildlife from climate change will far outweigh those from new renewable-generation facilities. For example, estimates for bird extinctions as a result of climate change range from approximately 30 - 70% of species, depending on the region.

To meet this demand, renewable-energy prospectors are mapping every windy ridge and sunny spot in California. On the Carrizo Plain (on private lands, not in the national monument) east of San Luis Obispo, several solar prospectors are proposing to cover miles of open country with solar panels and a solar-thermal power generation plant, forever changing the landscape. In the highlands of Shasta County, the Hatchet Ridge wind project is to produce approximately 102 MW, but at the "unavoidable" cost of collisions for sandhill cranes and bald eagles. To the south in the Mojave Desert, developers are pursuing plans that would convert miles of sensitive desert habitat to industrial-scale solar-energy collection systems. These are but a few of the new developments that may pop up by 2010, the current deadline for renewable projects in California to receive funding under the administration's stimulus plan. Each new project also raises myriad other environmental considerations, including water use, transmission lines, and the role of conventional generation as a back-up to renewable projects. Elsewhere in the West, the Columbia Gorge is quickly filling up with turbines under Washington's "streamlined" siting guidelines, and sun prospectors are digging for photovoltaic gold in the deserts outside Las Vegas.

As the momentum for new developments grows, the lesson of Altamont Pass must be to study potential environmental impacts of new projects before permits are issued. While bird deaths due to wind turbines are a small part of human-caused avian mortality, including collisions with cars, buildings, and communication towers, each new turbine does increase the risk. For example, biologist Shawn Small has estimated that the planned expansion of the Tehachapi Pass Wind Resource Area will result in the deaths of approximately 50,000 birds each year, including more than 6,500 raptors (10 times the number estimated to be killed in the Altamont Pass). Wind-resource developers and regulators must take these risks seriously and ensure adequate siting and mitigation to reduce impacts to birds.

The environmental review and permitting process must be as transparent as possible, with rigorous public involvement and independent scientific review. For this to work, Californians must remain actively engaged in the planning and review process. Cutting corners now will only lead to unintended consequences and costly lawsuits, as has occurred in the Altamont Pass. That would ultimately hinder the implementation of renewable projects in California.