By Miriam Raftery
April 15, 2012 (McCain Valley) –Winds of change are blowing in McCain Valley, where Iberdrola Renewables hopes to build the 200 megawatt (MW) Tule Wind energy facility that could power an estimated 60,000 homes.
On May 18, the County Planning Commission is slated to hear the project, with a hearing before the Board of Supervisors anticipated in June.
Much has been written about concerns raised by citizens over potential impacts on views, wildlife, campgrounds, and fire risk for the region. Seeking to address those concerns and clarify efforts at mitigation, Iberdrola contacted ECM and sent two representatives to tour the site with our editor and answer questions posed.
Some aspects of the project have evolved from early planning stages. Currently, plans are for a total of 112 turbines.
The federal Bureau of Land Management late last year approved 62 turbines on federal land. Another five are slated on County land. Additional turbines would be installed on tribal lands owned by the Ewiiaapaayp as well as state lands under jurisdiction of the California State Lands Commission.
“The State lands and Ewiiaapaayp turbines are being delayed while another year of Golden Eagle studies are conducted to confirm these turbines are low risk to eagles,” Michelle Sinning at Consensus Inc., community relations firm for Iberdrola, indicated.
In addition, more turbines could ultimately be added in a second phase of the project at the northern end of the valley.
Iberdrola, a Spanish utility with U.S. headquarters in Portland, Oregon, produces 28% of its power from renewable including 5,000 MW of wind and some solar on public lands in the U.S. The company gained a toehold in the U.S. market after acquiring Scottish Power, which in turn owned PPM, developer of a wind project in the Columbia River Gorge. Iberdrola claims to be the second largest wind energy company in the world.
The company wants community members to know that it is trying to mitigate concerns where possible, though Sinning concedes that “there are impacts” that can’t all be avoided.
“We have done a lot with fire mitigation,” said Harley McDonald, business developer at Iberdrola .
Each turbine would have a fire suppression system in the nacelle. The company agreed to widen all access roads to accommodate fire vehicles and is donating five 10,000 gallon water tanks for use by firefighters. Fuel reduction will be done at the base of each turbine (ie removing brush). In addition, McDonald said, “We are funding a fire specialist plus four-part-time code inspectors for the life of the project, 25 to 30 years.”
Google “wind turbine fires” and you’ll see images of wind turbine fires around the world, including a wildfire in Texas started by a turbine fire. But Iberdrola says that risk is “not statistically significant” that a catastrophic wildfire would start from a turbine fire at the McCain Valley site. Out of 11,000 turbines installed in California in the last three years, only 3 or 4 had fires and none started wildfires, Sinning said.
The company commissioned a study by Richard P. Thompson, PhD, at California Polytechnic State University, on wildfire risks. "The final probability of a fire occurring and escaping containment of 0.0033% should remain fairly stable over the life of the project," he wrote.
Safe setback distances and impacts on views are among the other objections voiced by some to the Tule Wind project.
The minimum setback from McCain Valley Road and other roadways is 1.1 times the height of the turbine. Turbines would be 420 feet tall, plus or minus 10%, or a maximum of 462 feet. So a 450 foot turbine, for example, could be as close as 455 feet to a roadway—with whirling blades the span of a jetliner’s wings on the top.
Globally, while the number of turbine failures and blade failures is a relatively small percentage of total turbines installed, there are hundreds of cases of blades whirling off or turbines toppling completely.
“Blades flying off have generally been smaller, higher RPM turbines that use traditional braking systems that fail,” Stu Webster, director of permitting and environmental affairs for Iberdrola, told ECM.
In 2011, Suzlon blades fell off turbines at the Rugby Wind Power Project in North Dakota developed by Iberdrola. The facility shut down for repairs and there were no injuries. The problem was a rotor assembly issue, according to Sinning.
“It should be noted that at the time of the incident, we had run our U.S. fleet of more than 2,760 wind turbines for more than 63 million operating hours, and in our experience and Suzlon’s this type of failure is a singular event,” Sinning observed, adding that the Suzlon fleet has a “good operational track record.”
This was not Suzlon’s first problem, however. In 2008, Suzlon recalled 1,251 blades and retrofit turbines after cracks developed and at least one blade fell off at another facility.
Iberdrola has not yet selected a blade or turbine supplier for the Tule Wind facility, company representatives indicated. “We haven’t chosen a turbine technology yet,” said Webster.
There have been concerns among those who utilize McCain Valley, a federal Bureau of Land Recreation area, for camping and hiking over safety and noise issues.
Setbacks around campground areas will be farther than from roads. The nearest turbine will be 760 feet from Lark Canyon campground and 1,700 from Cottonwood campground, Sinning indicated.
The nearest house will be about 1,900 feet from turbines on BLM land, according to Iberdrola.
“I don’t think you will be able to see any turbines from Lark Campground,” Webster said, noting that turbines near the campground will be behind a hill. Iberdrola has pledged to donate over $800,000 to the Off Road Business Association for upgrades to campgrounds.
Efforts have been made to preserve views of Carrizo Gorge, which will have a “nearly 180 degree” unobstructed view,” according to Webster.
Along McCain Valley Road, however, the only access to both McCain Valley and the Sawtooth Wilderness area, the visual impacts will be substantial.
Already Sunrise Powerlink has marred views of landmark rock formations. Lost Valley Rock now looks truly lost, dwarfed by the towers.
The wind turbines will be even taller than the Powerlink towers. Most will be on the west side, but there will also be some turbines on the more scenic east side.
Some will also be visible along roads leading to the Carrizo Gorge, though turbines will appear as “specks” once motorists are several miles off the main roadway, Webster estimates.
In addition, the wind project will require its own set of transmission lines, which will parallel Sunrise Powerlink where possible, leading to a new power substation as well. Iberdrola’s transmission towers will be shorter than Powerlink towers, Webster indicated.
One of the biggest concerns of local planners and wildlife experts is the impact on birds, particularly golden eagles. There is one nesting pair of eagles about a mile from the project, according to Iberdrola, though other eagles and raptors forage in the area.
“We have experimented with radar,” says Webster, who contends the technology has shown promising results for detecting large migration patterns. “There has been some discussion on using it to detect single targets.” Asked if radar has been proven effective at detecting single targets such as eagles, however, he answered honestly,”No.”
Webster claims the radar shows promises in areas like the Texas Gulf Coast, where millions of birds travel through on migratory routes. Radar, in theory, can detect bird flocks several miles away and shut down turbines within a few minutes. In addition, Webster said, “The birds see the turbines and avoid them.”
But reports on radar success are mixed. Even manufacturers’ sites we checked showed only visual simulations. With radar installed now for several years at some wind farms, why are there no actual videos of the radar in action? Radar has been used successfully by NASA and some airports to eliminate bird-aircraft collisions.
Mark Duchamp at Save the Eagles International states that “radars are already in operation at several wind farms in the world, and the results as dismal. At the Kenedy Ranch, Texas, one wind farm has officially been estimated to have killed 921 birds and 2,309 bats in a little less than a year, and another one nearby 1,812 birds and 3,087 bats in the same period,” he noted, adding that actual deaths are probably even higher due to predators carrying off some dead birds.
According to Duchamp, that after over one and a half years of operation at Kenedy Ranch as of late 2010, the radar did not shut down turbines even once.
Altamont Wind Farm in Northern California, where thousands of eagles as well as other raptors have been killed, has given the wind industry a “black eye,” Webster admits. “It probably would not be done today,” he said, adding that the site is actually a huge feeding ground where ground squirrels make the site a “smorgasbord” for juvenile and migrant eagles from as far away as Mexico and Alaska.
But Webster points out that other industries in the power business kill birds, too. A tar sands facility in Canada has been prosecuted for killing 1,500 birds, he noted. “Birds and bars may be affected neurologically from coal mining,” he said, citing mercury contamination accumulating in birds’ bodies. Power lines are also among the leading causes of bird mortalities.
“Until we hold those other industries accountable,” he says, comparisons are unfair. “We’re the only industry that is transparent.”
The National Wind Collaborative estimates that three to six birds are killed per megawatt per year at wind farms. By that calculation, the 200 MW Tule Wind project would kill some 600 to 1200 birds each year. That’s only an estimate, however; actual kill rates may vary by region.
If the Tule Wind project is built, monitoring would be most intensive in the first year, after which a technician would conduct counts weekly in fall and spring, as well as whenever incidental maintenance is done. Counts may miss some birds that travel outside the count area before succumbing to injuries, or that are eaten by predators.
Other disruptions to wildlife could result from noise and low-frequency sound, construction, habitat loss from brush clearing and 34 miles of roads slated to be built.
Monitoring will include Iberdrola’s Oregon facility which monitors “close to 200 sensors per turbine. It looks like NASA,” Webster said. Turbines can be adjusted to current conditions such as wind speeds and if something goes wrong, lights will flash at the control center and turbines can be shut down.
Earthquake safety is another concern. In 1892, a 7.8 quake in Imperial Valley caused ground rupture in McCain Valley, where boulders rolled down hillsides. Turbines will be mounted in bedrock and built to meet California seismic standards, according to Iberdrola.
Iberdrola estimates it will create 352 construction jobs and 10-12 permanent jobs. “We make every effort to hire locally,” said McDonald. In addition, Iberdrola has estimated Tule Wind would generate $3.5 million a year in tax revenues for San Diego County.
The project has faced heavy opposition from many local residents, community planners and outdoor enthusiasts in this scenic region. Native Americans including Viejas have also gone on record opposing the project due to cultural resources and concern over eagles. Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Bob Filner are both on record against the project.
Iberdrola says he has over 750 people who have voiced support, however, most in East County. “Supporters’ reasons range from clean energy and economic opportunities to getting off foreign oil,” Sinning concluded.
The next step in the decision-making process will be a May 18 County of San Diego Planning Commission hearing. But McDonald observed, “If the County denied, it wouldn’t necessarily stop the project. We would look at alternatives.”
Federal subsidies due to run out at year’s end, if not renewed, may also quell the developer’s enthusiasm for the project, as could a proposed County wind ordinance with tough setback and low-frequency sound requirements.
What happens if the project is built, once the projected life of the project ends in 30 years or so? “It could be decommissioned,” Webster said, adding that decommissioning should include removal of turbines.
Alternatively, Iberdrola could seek to renew its nearly 35-year-lease and update the turbines with newer technology to meet future demand for renewable energy production.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a clarification on fire risk from the study's author.