Decision allows industrial-scale wind development across East County and northeast region, including San Diego's scenic mountain, desert and rural areas
By Miriam Raftery
"This is absolutely unneeded and ill advised."--Commissioner Peder Norby
July 23, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) – By a 4-2 vote, San Diego County’s Planning Commission voted Friday to approve a controversial County Wind Energy Ordinance, an amendment to the Boulevard General Plan enabling approval for industrial scale wind turbine projects across vast areas in local mountain, rural and desert areas. Also approved was an amendment to the Borrego Springs Community Plan to increase flexibility for small turbine projects.
Communities targeted as prime industrial-scale wind resource areas include Santa Ysabel near Julian, Ranchita, Ocotillo Wells, Boulevard, Campo and Jacumba and other areas under County jurisdiction, as well as many federal recreational and U.S. forest lands as wlell as tribal properties.
Commissioner Peder Norby, who voted against the action, blasted it as “absolutely unneeded and ill-advised.” He voiced concerns about “noise that could make people sick” as well as environmental problems and placing an undue burden on East County communities.
“There is no doubt that we can create the same amount of electricity coming out of these wind projects, in fact we can produce more,” he stated, citing rooftop solar as a better alternative.
Two engineers who testified agreed.
Bill Powers of Powers Engineering has worked on utility-scale energy projects and is now working to organize a local energy alternative to SDG&E in San Diego that would rely on renewable in urban areas—primarily rooftop and parking lot solar.
He told commissioners that San Diego has potential for 7,000 megwatts (MW) of rooftop solar alone. Powers also noted that wind energy is intermittent and unreliable, producing only a fraction of the potential energy claimed by the wind industry, whereas solar is far more reliable in our region. He also criticized the county for putting up “barriers” to rooftop solar, adding, “It’s important to have this wind ordinance not go through.”
Dennis Bergman, an electrical engineer from Pine Valley, concurred. “Our best bet here is solar,” he said. He also voiced fears over obsolence as newer technologies come along, noting that it’s not easy to take down hundreds or even thousands of massive turbines with huge foundations.
Boulevard Planning Group Chair Donna Tisdale found the decision heartbreaking.
"It was devastating to watch four of the six commissioners voting to side with industry and absentee land owners over our at-risk communities and our long-term vision in our community plan,” she told ECM. “Especially, when a majority originally indicated they would act to protect our rural community character and public health and safety. They just gutted our land use protections and opened the door to the industrialization of our rural community and iconic boulder strewn ridgelines, lining them with hundreds of 400-500 foot tall turbines.”
She added, “The plan amendment also enables absentee ranch land owners to pack currently open and scenic fields with industrial industrial solar projects. Soitec has 4 Boulevard projects under environmental review with dual tracking Concentratinv Solar PV solar modules that each stand 48 feet wide and 30-35 feet tall and represent over 7,000,000 square feet of density in areas zone for 1 dwelling for 40-80 acres.
Worst of all, they approved the potential for a waiver of low frequency noise restrictions in areas north of I-8, where several wind projects are proposed adjacent to the existing Kumeyaay Wind turbines that are already making impacted residents ill."
In her testimony to commissioners, Tisdale said that areas north of I-8 “are probably even more sensitive” than those south of the freeway.
“Commissioner Norby had it right,” she concluded. “None of this is necessary and it is ill-advised We can generate more solar energy in a distributed manner where people use it.”
Commissioners Bryan Woods, David Pallinger, John Riess and Leon Brooks voted in favor of the wind ordinance, while commissioners Peder Norby and Michael Beck opposed. Commissioner Adam Day was absent.
Beck and Woods were appointees of Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district in East County stands to bear the most negative impacts of the big energy projects planned and proposed.
Cindy Buxton from the San Diego Sierra Club’s Forest Committee testified against the measure. “I stood under a 500 KV turbine,” she said, adding that all decision makers should do so. “It was horrible.” She stated concerns that forest lands proposed as wilderness areas in San Diego County could be opened up for wind energy development instead.
Mark Ostrander of Jacumba, a retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief, warned that increasing energy infrastructure with large-scale wind projects will raise risk of fire and destroy more chaparral, which is now considered endangered.
Wind turbines, along with Sunrise Powerlink, “will hamper aerial firefighting,” he warned. “If we have a fire start in a wind area, we’re going to have to wait until it comes out, for the safety of the firefighters.”
That means greater environmental damage and habitat loss, should a wildfire occur in a wind energy facility packed with electrical power lines, transformers, and whirling blades on turbines each weighing around 100 tons.
Several speakers assailed a controversial report by the San Diego County Health and Human Services Department that was dismissive of concerns over health impacts of wind turbines. The report claimed that Dr. Nina Pierpont, author of Wind Turbine Syndrome, never had a peer-reviewed study of her findings published. But in fact she has, as Tisdale pointed out.
ECM editor Miriam Raftery, who has written numerous articles on wind health issues, called the County study a “whitewash” and noted that like other studies relying only on literature reviews, this one omitted any mention of people in the jurisdiction who are ill and claim wind turbines as the cause.
“We have been documenting cases of illnesses claimed by people living near wind turbines in our region since 2009,” she said, adding that the Manzanita Indians have been accepted into a university study due to illnesses believed caused by turbines nearby. She also faulted the study for ignoring not only infrasound illness issues, but also stray voltage—since Manzanita has stray voltage measures 1,000 times normal in the tribal hall and church.
She also presented information on problems occurring at a wind facility under construction in Ocotillo, where construction grading led to flooding of the town with a white chemical substance and where the developer built turbine roads three times wider than allowed under plans; violations of dust control requirements have also repeatedly occurred in the area, known to have deadly Valley Fever spores.
Commissioner Riess stated that he believes “Pierpont is correct” and questioned the combined impacts of noise and infrasound from numerous turbines. “It affects your bones…all sorts of parts of your body…enough to cause pain.”
Despite those concerns over health impacts on county residents, Reiss inexplicably voted for the wind ordinance anyhow.
Commissioner Woods also voted for the wind ordinance, even after voicing concerns over health, noting that there have been “tons of studies” around the world.
Commissioner Norby observed that a sound device he uses to scare away pocket gophers works without being audible to humans. So how, he asked, will putting hundreds of turbines emitting infrasound across the backcountry impact our local wildlife?
Commissioner Beck complained of “contradictory directives” from Supervisors and voiced serious concerns over impacts on sensitive and endangered species. He joined with Commissioner Norby to vote against the project.
Supporters who testified were vested players in the wind industry or contractors who stand to benefit from the projects. Ashley Winston, represented the California Wind Industry Association and Enel, which has a project proposed in East County, said that imposing “overly restrictive” requirements would “stifle” the industry.
She dismissed health concerns of residents, adding, “Annoyance is a potential perception” and likened the situation to building roads and highways that make noise.
John Gibson of Hamann Construction in El Cajon said the company owns property with wind energy potential. “We believe wind has an important role to meet our state’s energy goals,” he said.
Commissioners at times seemed baffled and befuddled as to the best course of action.
“Is anybody smart enough to figure out a motion?” the Chair asked at one point.
Commissioner Woods, who voted for the wind ordinance, offered several amendments, which were accepted.
The amendments add “repeating source of sounds” to the noise regulations, which will require setbacks far enough to limit sound to 50 decibels. Staff estimated average setbacks will be 4,800 to 6400 feet.
The amendments will also require wind developers to clean up and remove debris. The wind industry will also have leeway to substitute improved technologies in the future.
In addition, potential waivers may be granted to wind developers for properties north of I-8.
Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to adopt the wind ordinance will be made by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, who will also be voting on the Tule Wind energy project on August 8. The stakes are high for both the wind industry and backcountry residents—as well as everyone who cares about preserving scenic and sensitive areas in San Diego’s mountains, deserts and rural regions.