Wind vs. Bird in USA
Image: Chris Leschinsky / Getty Images For Forbes
rive out of California’s smoggy San Joaquin valley, past the oil rigs planted helter-skelter in citrus groves, climb into the Tehachapi Mountains, and the future suddenly comes into view. Hundreds of gleaming white wind turbines generating carbon-free electricity carpet chaparral-covered ridges and march down into the valleys of Joshua trees that lead to the Mojave Desert.
Here in Kern County, a bastion of Big Oil and Big Agriculture, green energy has become big business. In the past 36 months, the wind industry has attracted $3.2 billion in investment to a region with an unemployment rate 64 percent higher than the US average. A multibillion-dollar transmission line under construction in the Tehachapi will carry as much as 4,500 megawatts of renewable energy, most of it from wind farms, to coastal cities. At peak output, that’s the equivalent of four or five big nuclear power plants and a linchpin of California’s mandate to obtain a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. With a crucial federal tax credit set to expire at the end of 2012, developers are racing to put steel into the ground and secure a spot on the wire.
“The hotels are now full, the people who work in the restaurants now have someone to wait on,” says Lorelei Oviatt, Kern County’s planning director in Bakersfield, the honky-tonk hometown of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. “If you were laying concrete for a house, now you’re laying concrete for a turbine.”
A shadow, however, is falling on the Tehachapi, cast by the nine-and-a-half-foot wingspan of a Pleistocene-born bird of uncommon intelligence and longevity. With the investment of tens of millions of dollars and extraordinary effort by scientists, North America’s largest bird, the California condor, is staging a spectacular comeback after verging on extinction 25 years ago. The 200 birds in the wild today (out of 400 total) are rapidly reinhabiting their historic range in one of the nation’s great achievements of conservation biology. Naturalists can once again marvel at a bird that manipulates hot winds to soar hundreds of miles without flapping its wings.
It’s a flight path that is taking the condor perilously closer to the spinning blades of Tehachapi wind turbines that depend on those same thermal currents to generate power; biologists fear it’s only a matter of time before the condor begins hitting the 500-foot-high machines. A single death could be catastrophic for the wind industry, the regional economy and, not least, the condor. The loss of an alpha bird could disrupt breeding patterns and an intricate avian hierarchy, according to biologists. “It would be a major disaster,” says Mark Tholke, an executive with wind developer enXco, which is building several projects in the Tehachapi.
Under the federal and California endangered species acts, it’s illegal for anyone to kill a condor without first securing a permit to do so. Given that the government has not issued such an ‘incidental take’ permit and has no intention of doing so, if a turbine kills a condor, the operator could be charged criminally. Environmentalists could also ask a judge to shut down a wind farm where a condor died. “If we as an industry don’t come up with a plan that is clear and reliable,” says Tholke, “the uncertainty is going to drive some investors away and drive up the cost of renewable energy.”
Already, state regulators have scuttled a huge Pacific Gas & Electric wind project in part because of the financial risks of a potential condor-caused cut to electricity production. Last June, the Tehachapi’s biggest developer, Terra-Gen Power, abruptly pulled a planned 411-megawatt farm after Oviatt says she told executives that condor concerns and opposition from local residents would likely doom the project. Then in October, the Sierra Club and two other environmental groups sued Kern County over its approval of a 300-megawatt NextEra Energy Resources wind farm that state and federal officials warn poses a high risk to condors.
US Fish & Wildlife Service biologists, meanwhile, have told county officials and developers that most of the multibillion-dollar projects on the drawing board as well as at least one existing wind farm threaten the condor, according to agency records Forbes obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request. “The service requests that the county of Kern exercise extreme caution in developing wind energy within the Tehachapi area because it falls within the range of the California condor,” Raymond Bransfield, a senior biologist, wrote Oviatt in November 2009. “Until we have a better understanding of the behaviour and flight patterns of California condors within the Tehachapi area, we strongly recommend that the county of Kern not permit any action that may result in take of California condors.”
Conflicts between renewable energy and wildlife are nothing new. But the condor presents a conundrum that will force some hard choices about the balance we’re willing to strike between obtaining clean energy and preserving the wild things. As the condor begins to go where no condor has gone in decades, developers, environmentalists and government biologists have formed a task force and are scrambling to meld conservation science with a Silicon Valley-style technological solution to wind and wildlife. “The stakes are high for both sides,” says Ashleigh Blackford, senior wildlife biologist for renewable energy at the Fish & Wildlife Service in Sacramento, California, “The question is, how quickly can we come up with answers given the pace of wind farm development?”