The proposed Alta East Wind Project (AEWP) that is to be constructed near the city of Tehachapi in the Mojave Desert, California is quickly becoming one of the most controversial wind developments in the country. A recent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decision to approve the development proposal has opened the way for endangered species to be injured or killed.
The BLM granted permission to Alta Windpower Development, LLC to construct, operate and maintain the Alta East Wind Project as a 153MW capacity wind farm. This means the approved development has been revised down from the original proposal of 106 turbines. It is estimated that the project will employ 260 workers during the construction phase and then generate 15 permanent jobs once it has been commissioned.
The BLM considerations that worked in favor of approving the development included:
- The energy produced by the project could displace up to 126,358 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year that may otherwise be emitted by power plants currently generating electricity for the California system.
- There are several existing, permitted, and proposed wind energy and transmission projects near the Project area, including: the Alta–Oak Creek Mojave Wind Project, Alta Infill I, and Alta Infill II, the Rising Tree Wind Project, the Avalon Wind Project, the Catalina Renewable Energy Project, and SCE’s Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Line Project.
- The AEWP is not located within and will not affect critical habitat of the California condor or desert tortoise, and the USFWS has not designated critical habitat for the Bakersfield cactus.
- Because of the comprehensive condor avoidance and minimization plan that the Applicant will implement as part of the AEWP, that over the 30 year life of the Project, “Project activities are reasonably likely to result in the death of no more than one condor as a result of being struck by a turbine blade,” and therefore the BLM’s issuance of a ROW grant for the AEWP is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the California condor.
- The AEWP’s Eagle Conservation Plan (ECP) and Avian Protection Plan (APP) will avoid, minimize, and monitor the project’s impacts to eagles and migratory birds. The Applicant’s decision to apply for an eagle take permit responds to a recommendation from the USFWS, which is based on modeling showing that even after implementing the avoidance and minimization measures there is still a potential fatality risk associated with golden eagles over the life of the project. The ECP and APP include monitoring of eagle and raptor nests in the vicinity of the AEWP site.
The full Record of Decision on the Bureau of Land Management can be read here.
Responsibility To Endangered Species
Among other species mentioned above, particular attention is being paid to the fate of the Californian Condor. And this is where the development becomes controversial because it is effectively granting immunity from prosecution that Alta Windpower and its parent company Terra-Gen Power, LLC from prosecution should the wind turbines be responsible for the death of condors and golden eagles.
According to the news release announcing the decision: “In the unlikely event that an eagle is struck by a turbine blade prior to Alta Windpower obtaining a take permit, the BLM will require Alta Windpower to implement additional measures to ensure that this project does not pose any further threat until such permit is issued.”
There are plans for elaborate measures to be put in place to protect the condors from the possibility of bird strike that will help detect the presence of the birds and then avoid contact with the turbines. The company plans to install a detection system designed to switch off its 456-foot-tall turbines when condors are spotted nearby, the L.A. Times reported. The paper said the detector is to include a telemetry system to track signals from radio transmitters attached to condors flying within 16 miles of the facility, radar to detect untagged birds and on-site biologists to report condor sightings. If a condor ventures within 2 miles, the speed of rotating turbine blades will be reduced from 150 mph to 15 mph within two minutes, and down to 3 mph a few minutes after that, said officials of Terra-Gen Power.
The argument provided by government officials is that the proposed site is not one suited to condors and the protection and mitigation measures agreed to by Terra-Gen are sufficient to afford the protection of the species.
The question has to be asked, is enough being done to protect a species that only a few short years ago was terrifyingly close to extinction? And what will happen when the first condor is found dead as a result of an incident with an Alta East wind turbine?