Photo by Debra DiPaolo

It must have been a tough day for Charles Bragg when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s board of commissioners met on April 19 to give final approval to a long-awaited wind-energy project in Kern County. While one environmentalist after another rose to laud the DWP for finally making good on its commitment to “green power,” Bragg had been charged with the opposite task: to warn the commissioners that if the DWP went ahead with the plan stated in its most recent environmental-impact report, Audubon would sue. “As a ratepayer I’ve been paying into the green-power project for a long time,” intoned Bragg, a tall, thin man with graying hair, the editor of Audubon’s Santa Monica Bay Chapter newsletter. “But I don’t want to lay awake at night thinking of wings hitting propellers so I can turn on my lights.”

Sadly for Bragg, the commissioners were in no mood for the hand wringing of bird lovers. Earlier in the meeting, the board had received the happy news that its former PR firm, Fleishman Hillard, would pay nearly $6 million to settle charges that it defrauded the DWP and other city agencies, and Audubon’s complaints came off as entertainment, much like the antics of solar-power agitator Doug Korthof, who, in his rumpled suit and two-day stubble, showed up to use the bird issue as fodder for his own agenda. Korthof’s assertion that “solar doesn’t have any opponents” got a laugh, as did the commissioners’ lighthearted banter over the definition of passerine. And when Audubon’s attorney, Andrew Lichtman, rose to address the board, the commissioners’ president, Dominick W. Rubalcava, confidently introduced the city’s lawyer, seated not far from him at the commissioners’ table. It was almost a punch line.

Like every wind farm built or proposed in the United States since the 1970s, the Pine Tree Wind Development Project, to be built in the high Mojave Desert near Jawbone Canyon by Wind Prometheus with General Electric equipment, has been beset by pressures from conflicting sides. On one side are clean-air advocates who complain that after its pricey unveiling ceremony in February of 2003, the project has moved forward so slowly that they doubt the DWP’s sincerity about green power; on the other sit not only Audubon members, but off-roaders and hikers who worry that the project will spoil the area’s recreational opportunities and scenery. “It’s an area that rivals Yosemite in beauty,” says David Laughing Horse Robinson, who calls himself chairman of the Kawaiisu tribe, although other Kawaiisu disagree. “Why don’t you go put up wind turbines in Yosemite and see if you meet with any resistance?” Robinson also fears that Pine Tree will tread upon Native American burial grounds.

But there’s also a lot to like about the wind project, including its place in the DWP’s portfolio, which has so far remained stubbornly tied to coal-fired power generated in neighboring states. If it goes online as planned next spring, it will power close to 60,000 homes with 120 megawatts of power, all of it owned and controlled by the DWP. It will be the largest municipally owned wind farm in the country, and it will help the DWP meet its Los Angeles City Council–mandated portfolio standard of 20 percent renewable-source power by 2017. The original 21,500-acre study area has been whittled down to 8,000 acres, all of it on private land leased to the DWP by the Hansen Family Wilderness Ranch. It sits close to existing transmission lines, and the winds in the hilly valleys where the turbines will be sited blow steady most of the year at about 11 to 45 mph. Of a little more than 100 possible Indian cultural sites identified by the tribal elders who consulted the DWP in its early studies, only a few remain within the development area, and all will be avoided during construction.

As for the scenic beauty of the region, “I’ve been to the site and I’ve been to Yosemite,” says DWP Chief Operating Officer Henry Martinez, “and the only thing I’ll say about the two is that there are some nice rolling hills in Kern County. It would be a stretch to compare the two.”

The birds, however, remain an issue. On June 1, the Los Angeles and Kerncrest chapters of the Audubon Society did just as Bragg promised, and filed suit in Kern County Superior Court against the DWP and its board of commissioners, alleging that the utility violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it ratified an inadequately prepared report.

In addition to underestimating potential aesthetic and air-quality issues, the suit states, the DWP’s studies focused almost exclusively on resident eagles and hawks, ignoring the smaller birds — the passerines — headed north for the summer. Martinez says he’s puzzled by the suit, which comes even after the DWP agreed in writing to relocate any turbines that prove lethal to birds. “Evidently they didn’t accept that was a gesture of good will, or a sign that we’re willing to work with them,” he says. “We felt all the issues had been adequately addressed.”

“I want you to see the gall of that formula,” says Audubon’s lawyer, Andrew Lichtman. “They’re not saying we’ll close down the whole field or all the turbines if we’re killing birds in a way we didn’t anticipate. They’re only saying we’ll close the turbines that are killing disproportionately more. That won’t help a single thing. It’s a jaded, cynical view of what it would take to protect birds.”

Lichtman says Audubon wants sound scientific studies. “Several years ago at Altamont, they found — surprise, surprise — they were killing golden eagles. That was a complete shock to the whole industry, because no one had done any work to anticipate the problem. Everybody’s playing catch-up on raptors. Now we want them to start looking at songbirds.”

Since biologists began counting bird deaths at the Altamont Wind Resource Area in 1988, the wind farm’s bloody avian legacy has slowly evolved into the wind industry’s Three Mile Island, stalling wind projects in some places and halting further development at Altamont. In a recent report, the California Energy Commission estimated that Altamont’s 5,400 turbines in Alameda County kill between 1,766 and 4,721 birds a year. The pass has been branded an “ecological sink” for the golden eagle, which dies there in greater numbers than the habitat can support.

Bird kills at fields like Altamont’s leave the wind industry vulnerable to attacks by the coal and gas lobby, which has been eager to capitalize on every environmentally motivated complaint against wind. Last week, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) offered an amendment to the energy bill that would deny federal tax credits to any wind farm built within 20 miles of a national park, on the grounds that the towers could threaten the vistas of such national treasures as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ironically, Great Smoky consistently suffers from the thickest smog in the national-parks system due to its proximity to Tennessee’s seven coal-fired power plants — an issue Alexander has never breathed a word against. The amendment was defeated, but next time around, for the sake of his state’s coal, Alexander could well become a bird fanatic, and his argument might gain some traction.

Or it might not: For the most part, wind has enjoyed bipartisan support in the federal government, which currently rewards new wind-energy projects with a 1.5-cent-per-kilowatt production tax credit, a kickback that has now been extended through the end of 2005 (and will likely be extended through the end of 2006 as well). And wind’s advocates insist a lot has been done in the last two decades to design bird-friendly turbines. I recently met Dale Strickland, vice president and senior ecologist with Western EcoSystems Technology in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on a ranch outfitted with wind power in the mountains near Evanston, Wyoming. On the side of a hill where we took shelter from a persistent breeze, Strickland, a consultant on natural-resource and wildlife issues, detailed some of the reasons for bird (and bat) mortality in turbine blades and explained how the new machines were different.

“Those early turbines typically were on lattice towers,” he said. “And some of them were not only lattice, but they also had horizontal bars within the lattice structure, so they provided a perfect perching ledge for birds.” Also, older turbines had gearboxes, called “nacelles,” set upwind of the propellers. When a bird lands on an upwind nacelle and later lifts off, it literally glides into the blades. The turbines in Wyoming, by contrast, were set on smooth, tubular towers, with nacelles downwind of the propellers. While Strickland talked, as if on cue, a bird approached a nearby turbine, slowed and hovered for a moment, and then expertly negotiated a safe route between the whooshing propellers.

“That was a kestrel,” Strickland told me later in a phone conversation. “It’s one of the species we worry about — one that commonly gets whacked in wind plants.” Whether a songbird — or even a different kind of raptor — would so capably choose the same trajectory remains a matter of speculation, but the serendipitous flight of this particular hawk at least made it seem possible that, with some ingenuity and forethought, birds and wind energy can coexist.

Lichtman says he hopes that’s what the science confirms, but first the “DWP has to stop obfuscating” the lack of songbird studies in their environmental reports. “We don’t want to say, ‘Satisfy us or your whole wind project will go to hell,’ ” he says, “because environmental groups are trying to get the power companies to stand for something that’s important for other conservation goals. But maybe we can get them to think about all the other wind farms coming down the pike.” And who knows? Maybe when the science is in, “they’ll work up some good solutions,” says Lichtman, “like towers that make owl noises. But no one’s really done the studies to come up with anything like that.”

LA Weekly