Turbines fan debate over wind energy

Times Staff Writer

In a blustery stretch of desert two hours east of Los Angeles, where many of the world’s first power-producing windmills were built, a plan for more turbines has triggered a backlash that echoes a national debate over the merits of wind energy.

A proposal to build about 50 windmills next to Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument has aroused passions in a region already dotted with 3,000 windmills, with opponents charging that the wind energy industry has neither delivered the promised power nor spared the environment.

The industry, which was born in California, now has projects in 40 states and $8 billion in investments over the last two years, according to the American Wind Energy Assn.


Supporters say wind power has come of age and will help slow global warming, while critics contend that it has delivered only a quarter of its promised energy, proved lethal to wildlife and, in the view of many residents, blighted the landscape.

Around the country, Internet blogs and anti-wind energy websites hum with angry postings about projects on picturesque ridgelines, seascapes and farmlands from New England to Texas.

Politicians and celebrities have weighed in. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his Nantucket Island neighbors have so far successfully fought installation of offshore turbines.

Their opposition, in turn, has prompted criticism that rich liberals are all for alternative power providing it doesn’t mar their views.

In his San Gorgonio Pass community above the 10 Freeway, homeowner Les Starks has led the local opposition.

“They’re going to take a national monument ... and turn it into an industrial slum,” Starks shouted, his voice nearly drowned by blustery gusts as he eyed the stark mountain front soaring above Palm Springs, then zeroed in on a bony ridge 4,000 feet up.

“They want to bulldoze that mesa, put in these enormous wind turbines ... and make lots and lots of money.”

Steve Christensen, owner of the mesa where the windmills would be erected, said all he wants to do is produce clean electricity in a region already dotted with windmills.

“We’ve got windmills to the north of us, windmills to the east and west of us, windmills everywhere but to the south,” he said. “Why are they picking us out?”

Christensen, a civil engineer from Cypress, Texas, said his father bought the land half a century before Congress designated the surrounding slopes as a national monument. He said residential or commercial development on the squall-scoured mesa would be impossible.

“If you had a house or car or anything on there it would literally strip the paint off,” he said.

San Gorgonio Pass is one of the windiest spots in North America, according to federal researchers.

The 3,000 existing turbines produce enough energy to power almost 25,000 homes for a year, said California Energy Commission spokeswoman Amy Morgan. But that is a fraction of their advertised capacity.

Although politicians and environmentalists concede that there are drawbacks to wind energy, most argue that the fallout from the turbines is minor compared with the global harm threatened by burning fossil fuels.

“Alternative energy is the policy of the U.S. government, the state of California and this county,” said Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley, who is considering four new projects, including Christensen’s.

“I sort of like my air-conditioner to keep running during the summer.” And, he added, “These wind farms create a huge tax base.”

Wind energy companies will pay $3.8 million in state and local business taxes this year, said Riverside County’s chief deputy assessor, Michael Beaman, and more in property taxes.

According to public records, renewable energy companies -- including wind, solar and geothermal -- have received $93.8 million in subsidies from California ratepayers.

At the federal level, energy companies also receive generous tax write-offs, and production subsidies absorb start-up costs of windmills -- new ones can cost $1.2 million apiece -- and help reduce taxes on profits from traditional power sources.

Advocates say that wind companies receive a fraction of the billions given to coal and oil companies, and that they are vital to an industry with high infrastructure costs that emits no greenhouse gases and uses a free, readily available power source.

“The private sector does this stuff for money. This is America,” said John White, a longtime environmentalist who heads a nonprofit consortium of environmental groups and renewable energy companies.

Critics, however, argue that wind projects subsidized with public funds deliver a fraction of the promised power.

For example, in 2003, San Gorgonio wind farms boasted of 413 megawatts of capacity, but actually produced a quarter of that electricity.

Advocates concede that turbines have produced full power just 10% of the time, but said newer machines provide some power 60% of the time. Today, wind energy provides less than 1% of the nation’s power.

Converting 5% to wind “would require ... almost 10 million acres, most of it rural and wild, turned over to 400-foot-high machines and their motion, noise and lights,” wrote Lloyd Crawford of National Wind Watch, an online coalition of anti-wind power opponents. “That’s not a green solution, but a huge disaster.”

In California, turbines as big as minivans have caught fire in midair and crashed 200 feet to the earth. Broken propeller blades don’t budge, no matter how brisk the breeze. Thousands of hawks, eagles and songbirds have been ground up by turbines.

Favorite picnic sites and scenic back roads were closed to the public after government land was leased for private windmills.

Near San Gorgonio Pass, residents complain of a ceaseless high-pitched whine from windmills and, at night, bright, revolving lights.

“It’s like having a disco going ... all night long,” said Joyce Manley, a retired Los Angeles schoolteacher who lives within half a mile of hundreds of windmills.

Claude Kirby, a real estate agent for the Palm Springs office of the Bureau of Land Management, said the early days of wind power were problematic because of equipment failures and get-rich-quick schemes.

“You had a bunch of rogues ... who were more interested in investment tax write-offs than actual wind energy,” he said.

But he said that just as car engines evolved from the original slow-moving, smoke-belching Model Ts, the new, mammoth wind turbines have quieter blades that turn slowly to protect birds, can capture far more energy and do not break down as often.

Foes say Kirby is one of the main reasons the rogues arrived. “He’s the one who leased them all the land,” Manley said.

Kirby said he is proud of the leases he has for 1,224 turbines on 3,589 acres, netting the public annual rent of $640,610, adding, “I’d rather see wind turbines than black smoke from a coal plant.”

John Geesman, a member of the California Energy Commission, conceded that wind projects have suffered growing pains from on-again, off-again tax credits and an imperfect technology. But he said the industry is overcoming its early problems.

“I think wind will be an extraordinary contributor to California’s future energy mix,” Geesman said.

Randall Swisher, head of the American Wind Energy Assn., said “the California experience is different than any other state in regard to being home to first-generation technology which didn’t work all that well -- some of the first-generation turbines didn’t work at all.”

Swisher said newer, larger turbines replacing flawed smaller ones are the solution. But they still don’t produce 100% capacity because the wind doesn’t always blow.

Still, he said, there is no stopping the fact that wind energy has come of age, with widespread public support.

“This is not a marginal, boutique industry any longer,” he said. “It’s a serious contributor to the nation’s electric power needs.”

Environmental groups are among the supporters.

“The most significant threat to the environment, which dwarfs everything else, is global warming, and the environmental community is united in supporting renewable solutions,” said Julia Levin of Audubon California.

She said the specter of the loss of a fourth of the world’s species from global warming in coming decades, predicted in numerous studies, trumps other concerns.

But even wind-power proponents say that some places should be off-limits to the production of green energy.

“These are great big turbines; you can’t hide ‘em. Not every community is going to be comfortable hosting a wind project,” Swisher said. “That’s the reality, and that’s a conversation that has to go on between the wind industry and the local community.”

One of the livelier conversations is taking place in the shadow of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

“You can build wind facilities in bad places,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, a fan of wind energy who contends that a national monument is an inappropriate setting.

Christensen, the landowner who wants to build more windmills, said that when the monument was created in 2000, Congress included language saying development on adjoining properties should not be banned. But local officials are skeptical.

“I’m wary,” said Ashley, the Riverside County supervisor.

He said a wind farm would mar a breathtaking, mountain-rimmed backdrop at the geographic gateway to Palm Springs that is an important tourism draw. “At a certain point,” he said, “you have to draw the line.”