SEJ 2007 at Altamont: Wind Energy’s Problem Child

I’m back from the ultimate professional recharge: the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference, held south of San Francisco last week on the leafy Stanford University campus. This week I’ll be giving highlights from a packed agenda exploring environmental technology, politics, culture and science.

Highpoint #1: A trip across the Bay to Altamont Pass, where cool air sucked over coastal hills by the rising heat of California’s vast Central Valley spins some 5,200 wind turbines spanning a roughly 6×8-mile area. It was at Altamont that the U.S. wind power industry took flight in the early 1980s, as developers rushed to install largely untested technology to cash in on handsome federal and state tax credits. By 1985 California 80% of the world’s wind power capacity, and much of it was at Altamont. (The turbines in the photo are circa 1984). SEJ conference tour on California’s Altamont Pass

That early lead was handed to Europe as the U.S. fell back into reliance on imported oil and other fossil fuels. “Because of a whole raft of poor policy decisions both here and in Washington, we blew it,” says Tom Gray, a veteran of the 1980s wind boom and currently communications director for the American Wind Energy Association.

But the U.S. wind industry itself seems to be blowing another opportunity here at Altamont: the chance to clear its reputation as a bird killer. Altamont is almost certainly the world’s most deadly wind farm for birds. Collisions with wind turbine rotors and poles kill an estimated 70 golden eagles a year in an area big enough to support just one nesting pair, plus significant numbers of burrowing owls, red tailed hawks, and American kestrels. Buildings kill hundreds of times more birds than wind turbines, but the ongoing slaughter of endangered birds at Altamont remains a damaging black mark on an otherwise green industry. 

This winter a lawsuit by environmental organizations and scientists required Altamont’s wind turbine operators to cut the bird kill in half by 2009 by taking down a few hundred of the most dangerous wind turbines. Unfortunately, at least from what the SEJ journalists saw on the ground, the deal isn’t being implemented. (For a detailed if pointed telling of the settlement story, see “Tilting at Windmills” by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, CA.)

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2 thoughts on “SEJ 2007 at Altamont: Wind Energy’s Problem Child

  1. Thank you for the connection to Tilting Windmills. It is discouraging that the bird kill hasn’t been addressed sufficiently by the wind power industry. Sites need to be planned in conjunction with local and national naturalists….
    Any comparable situations in Europe? Denmark or Germany?

  2. I agree with Irene–thank you for connecting to Tilting Windmills. It’s a good reminder to those lunging onto the bandwagon that there needs to be careful thought put to any new developments. It reminds me of one of your earlier commentors, who pointed out that a lot of the solutions are already tested (and even old). No matter how promising any new technology might be, it needs to take into account key stakeholders. If the point is to “save” the environment, this solution still needs refining. In other words, the burrowing owl has to count for something here.

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