By Miriam Raftery
May 7, 2014 (San Diego)--“How do you beat the national average with below average wind speeds?” Attorney Bill Pate posed that intriguing question at a forum hosted in San Diego recently by Activist San Diego.
Good question. Pattern Energy told the California Public Utilities Commission that it would reach 34% capacity at Ocotillo Express Wind Facility, a site rated just a class 2, the second lowest federal rating for wind speeds. The first three months of data for the Ocotillo project show only about a 19% capacity reached. In the entire U.S., there is only a 22 to 23% net capacity on average.
So how did the project get approved?
Government officials charged with protecting the public good simply “didn’t care,” said Pate of the many problems raised by residents including skepticism that wind power promised could ever be produced. “They only care about capacity. Wind energy companies got $530 million in federal subsidies and they used a benchmark that nobody else uses – the number of households that could be powered.”
Pattern Energy claimed in public documents and hearings that the Ocotillo project would power 125,000 homes, ECM has confirmed . “Simple math proves this is impossible,” Pate said. “The BLM [Bureau of Land Manaqgement] lowered that to 94,000 [after the project was approved], and that assumes maximum capacity with 100% of turbines working. I have never seen 60% of them working,” added Pate, an Ocotillo resident.
ECM photographers have spent months documenting lack of wind speeds through videos shot since December when the project went online. Most days, turbines are not spinning, or barely so. When a wind project manager giving a tour stated that turbines would power only one-tenth the homes that Pattern told the federal government it would power, the manager became enraged to find video of himself online and threatened two photographers with violence trying to force removal. The photographers obtained restraining orders against the manager, who later claimed he was mistaken on the wind speeds. Pattern has refused to disclose wind speed data with media or residents.
Residents also raised concerns over impacts on health, wildlife, the environment and Native American cultural resources. Residents tried to stop the project. They wrote letters to public officials. They testified at public hearings. They filed lawsuits. But with the new federal fast-tracking process, the entire project was approved in just five months from January to May last year. Some turbines are just one-third of a mile from homes.
Pate questioned how much wind it would take to turn a turbine with a fan blade, gear box and nacelle that combined weighs about 150 tons. “The most that one could produce is 3.5 megawatts,” he notes. That would be under ideal conditions, and it would take a 26 mph wind to sustain power generation.
Only a few places on earth—notably Ireland and Mongolia –regularly have winds that strong, Pate said. There is also a very narrow wind in which wind turbines function effectively – too little wind, and the turbines fail to produce substantial power. Too much, and turbines shut down over about 31 mph to avoid damage.
“The average wind in Ocotillo is 10.7 mph,” he said, noting that winds change directions frequently, another problem for wind generation.
Pattern refused to disclose wind data. However, Pate disclosed, “We caught them on a $110 loan application. They said the average wind speed is 6.2 meters per second, or about 13.8 mph—which puts this at the very bottom of power production, yet they told the PUC it would hit 34$ capacity in a class 2 wind speed area.”
He faults media for a lack of skepticism. “Every article in the U-T says this will supply 125,000 homes. It’s more like 10,000 or so.”
Plus, Pate noted, “for every 250 MW of wind SDG&E wants to put in 400-500MW of power with a peaker gas-fired power plant,” such as Quail Brush, the controversial project proposed near Mission Trails Regional Park. “If wind turbines were so great,” he concluded, “the Phoenecians would have put them up long ago.”
East County resident Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, also spoke.
“When these first came in,” she said of wind turbines in our region, “I thought they were clean and green.” She has since learned that people living near wind turbines in her area, as well as around the world, are developing health problems associated with low frequency noise, infrasound, and stray voltage from turbines. “It’s a huge web surrounding us.”
In Campo, turbines malfunctioned and blew apart, hurling blade parts half a mile away. Now there are medical issues in residents near turbines.
“At one house, a toddler had a tumor the size of a chip bag removed. There are several cancer cases- brain, kidney, stomach,” she said. A medical study found 68% have chronic sleep deprivation – more than two-thirds. Such symptoms are consistent with symptoms elsewhere linked to excessive electricity exposure; the project also includes high-voltage power lines and a substation. A person speaking on a cell phone at the Manzanita tribal hall had a blue arc shoot up due to electricity in the air, she said.
A tribal leader has indicated that tribal lands may be uninhabitable and negotiations with SDG&E to move the tribe are underway, Tisdale said. ( A Manzanita tribal leader has refused to answer media questions about the project recently, but has previously denied this claim. A tribal member has told ECM however that the tribal leadership is now pressuring members not to allow anyone else on tribal land to conduct further tests, after stray voltage levels 1,000 times normal were found in homes near turbines.)
Wind turbines also increase fire risk, Tisdale noted. “We have volunteer fighters and the highest fire risk in the state,” said Tisdale, who had most of her own ranch property burn in the Shockey Fire last summer.
The area is also rich in cultural resources. More than 3200 solar models and thousands of acres of wind turbines proposed will further take a “huge amount of water. That comes out of our groundwater,” she added.
Similar problems are happening around the world. In Australia about 20 homes have been abandoned near wind turbines. Homes have also been abandoned in Canada and the U.S. Animals are also impacted; some are biting their legs due to pain from the electricity. Tisdale said now she is also hearing from some people near a new substation in Alpine who can’t sleep. High exposure to electricity over long periods of time can also cause sterility, she said.
Wind companies tout jobs to get projects approved. But in Imperial County, where 40,000 acres of productive farmland and habitat are being converted to wind and solar projects, some jobs are being lost due to projects. These include jobs in tourism and farming. “One combine company that is 20 years old, all of them lost their jobs due to this,” Tisdale stated. “What are we doing? We’re putting the car before the horse. We’re not doing research first. EMF [electromagnetic frequencies] causes illnesses-leukemia, cancer…We need to make some changes.”
It’s hard for rural residents to make their voices heard. “If you challenge it, green energy, you are belittled,” she said, adding that Boulevard is a low income community where 55% of kids in school are disadvantaged economically. Yet she stated, “You have to get your own money and hire your own experts, then shame the government into doing something.”
The answer, she believes, is rather than paying companies to build big projects on backcountry lands, government should instead take away incentives/subsidies for such projects and encourage building where power is actually used – urban areas. “We have no water, no sewer in the backcountry…yet they are converting us to an industrial energy zone,” said Tisdale, who has been battling a barrage of massive-scale projects slated for her area on public, private and tribal lands.
“There is a line of projects already waiting to get on the grid now,” she concluded. “The utility wants these bit projects. They don’t want them on your roofs.” She urged those concerned to speak against the proposed County wind ordinance slated to be heard on May 8.
Terry Weiner with the Desert Protective Council spoke nest. The nonprofit has been educating people about the southwestern desert’s history, cultural, scenic and spiritual resources since 1954. The Mojave Desert is the only intact ecosystem left in California, she said, adding that renewable projects were rushed through despite designations that were enacted to protect the deserts.
“It started in 2006 with Bush and Cheney, who thought public lands were good places for corporations to make money,” she said. “But we don’t need to do any of these big energy projects.”
Instead, she wants to see more focus on conservation, retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, and putting solar on roofs and parking lots.
Transmission from remote areas loses up to 30% of power on hot days, she said. She noted that in Imperial Valley farmers are losing their leases to big energy companies. She balks at the term `solar farms.’ “Don’t ever call them farms,” she said, adding that thousands of acres of land where our food comes from is having topsoil stripped off for big wind and solar projects.
They are also destroying public lands – 12,500 acres in Ocotoillo, thousands of acres more proposed in McCain Valley. Nationwide, millions of acres more are targeted for wind and solar.
“Our public ladns are part of our national heritage,” she said. Plants that grow nowhere else are being destroyed now. Peninsular Bighorn sheep, of which only a few hundred are left, are having their habitat fragmented with projects in Imperial Valley, northern Mexico and East County. “Sheep don’t like things that are big and noisy,” Weiner added. “I don’t know how any wildlife would want ot hang out in Ocotillo now. If the noise doesn’t get you, the long shadows will.”
She showed photos of beautiful desert blooms – purple haze, purple gilias, then explained that desert crust is fragile and takes thousands of years to form. Limited use designations aimed at protecting sensitive plants, animals and cultural resources were ignored because President Barack Obama and then Secretary of the Interior Salazar wanted projects rushed through, Weiner concluded.
A moderator for Activist San Diego, which will soon be on air with the new KNSJ radio station (Network for Social Justice) called the disclosures by the speakers “depressing,” but offered this note of hope for getting word out to more people about these problems. “KNSJ is a community radio station. It will be a megaphone for you.”