Windmills Take Toll on Wildlife

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Times Staff Writer

When the giant Altamont wind farm sprouted here two decades ago, the only major objections were aesthetic. Local residents didn’t appreciate the forest of 7,000 ungainly wind towers cluttering their view.

No one, apparently, thought about the birds.

Since the phalanx of giant windmills began churning in the air above the Altamont Pass east of San Francisco Bay, an estimated 22,000 birds have died, including hundreds of golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, kestrels and other raptors, after flying into the spinning blades of the wind turbines.

Now, some environmental groups that routinely supported wind power as a clean, alternative source of electric power are opposing the renewal of permits for the wind farm until steps are taken to reduce the bird deaths.


“Renewing these permits without addressing the cumulative impacts of wind energy on migratory birds, especially raptor species, will give a black eye to wind power,” said Michael Boyd, president of Californians for Renewable Energy, a Santa Cruz-based organization that generally supports alternative energy sources such as wind power. Joining in the effort is the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit group known for its litigious approach to wildlife protection.

The two organizations have asked the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to reverse a recent decision by a local zoning board granting permit renewals to some of the wind power operators. Quoting from recent research for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the California Energy Commission, they estimate that over the past 20 years 22,000 birds have died in the Altamont windmills, including 400 to 800 golden eagles.

“The county did everyone a disservice by choosing to ignore the true impacts of these turbines, which are the equivalent of a terrestrial Exxon Valdez every year,” said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The open country surrounding Altamont Pass is believed to contain one of the largest populations of breeding pairs of golden eagles in the world. In the fall, the large raptors, as well as thousands of the more common red-tailed hawks, use the pass as a route to their winter homes in the Central Valley.

There are 16 other major wind farms in the United States, but none comes close to Altamont in the number of bird kills. In part, this is because of the abundance of birds. On a recent morning in the Altamont area, visitors counted more than 30 red-tailed hawks and several kestrels perched in trees and on fence posts or soaring in the currents high above the turbines.

The wind power industry, anxious to expand, describes the Altamont situation as an “anomaly” that has provided valuable lessons for other wind farms.


For example, the new Foote Creek Rim wind farm near Arlington, Wyo., is also in an area with heavy concentrations of golden eagles. Using data about eagle flight patterns collected from Altamont, planners there were able to space rows of turbines in a way that has avoided high numbers of bird deaths.

A 2001 report commissioned by the National Wind Coordinating Committee, an industry-funded advocacy group, contends that the continued controversy over bird kills, particularly at Altamont, has “delayed and even significantly contributed to blocking the development of some wind plants in the U.S.”

Researched by Wyoming-based Western EcoSystems Technology Inc., the report contends that many more birds are killed annually in collisions with vehicles (60 million), window panes (98 million) and communication towers (4 million) than die nationwide in wind turbines (10,000 to 40,000).

Paul Kerlinger, a New Jersey avian biologist who works regularly as an industry consultant, contends that of all the main energy sources excluding solar power, wind is the least threatening to bird life.

“When you turn on your lights you kill something, no matter what the source of electricity,” said Kerlinger.

Industry officials said they felt blindsided by the recent environmental opposition at Altamont.


“We felt that we were already way down the track in reducing avian fatalities,” said Steven P. Steinhour, vice president of Seawest, a San Diego wind power company with holdings in Altamont. Steinhour, an avid bird watcher who specializes in project development for Seawest, was incensed by the comparison of Altamont to the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster off the coast of Alaska.

“It’s estimated that half a million birds died because of Exxon Valdez,” said Steinhour, “it would take 400 years to reach that number here.”

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council estimates that 250,000 seabirds and 250 bald eagles died in the spill.

The industry’s own efforts to reduce Altamont bird kills, spokesmen say, have been hampered by the bankruptcies of Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, and Houston-based Enron, once a major wind industry player here.

For example, a 1998 proposal by FPL Energy, the Florida-based utility that is the largest wind power company in Altamont, proposed replacing 644 smaller turbines with 92 larger ones and putting the new turbines in wind corridors with low bird-kill rates. The company said it would use abundant research on the Altamont to “substantially reduce” bird deaths, primarily by relocating some of the deadlier towers.

The FPL “repowering” plans, along with those of four other companies, were approved by Alameda County after extensive environmental review.


However, when PG&E; filed for bankruptcy, the companies were reluctant to make the additional investment.

“Nobody wants to invest until PG&E; comes out of it,” said Steinhour.

The current flap over bird deaths came when the 20 permits held by the companies began to expire this year and the companies were required to go before a local zoning board for renewal.

The board approved renewals for 1,400 turbines.

Opponents have asked the board of supervisors to reverse those renewals when the board meets early next year.

The main complaint by opponents is that the renewals should have gone through an environmental review. “The county illegally approved these permits and will likely face legal action,” said Miller. As part of their opposition to the renewals, the groups attached a letter from biologist Carl G. Thelander and ecologist Shawn Smallwood detailing findings from a recent five-year study they conducted at Altamont for the California Energy Commission.

Thelander and Smallwood recommend a number of changes in the 50,000-acre wind farm. The proposals include allowing the grass to grow under turbines to provide more cover for ground squirrels and other raptor prey; experimenting with painting schemes to make the turbine blades more visible to birds, and moving some of the deadlier turbines out of canyons.

“Almost all of the golden eagle kills are in canyons,” said Smallwood, “but only 12% of the turbines are in canyons. You could drop the golden eagle kill to almost nothing just by removing some of the turbines.”