Winds of Change
Altamont wind farm generates a lot of criticism but little energy
Friday, August 20, 1999
ALTAMONT -- On a warm Wednesday on Altamont Pass Road in Livermore, four bright-eyed French youngsters, flanked by their less bright-eyed chaperones, have exited their rental car and are marveling at the sight of windmills.
Actually, three are marveling at the sight of windmills, and one is marveling at the sight of cows, which the chaperone says he can't understand. ``Because we have many cows in France. Too many, really.''
They have windmills in France, too, but these Parisian city kids have never seen them, and consequently they're firing off questions. What do these things do? Why are they there? Why are so many not working? Can we get closer to them?
The answer to the first question has something to do with producing electricity, and the answer to the last is a resounding ``Non!'' after which the chaperones insist that everyone should really get back in the car and be on their way.
``They are so pretty,'' the youngest girl, Camille, says in French, pointing enthusiastically toward the windmills.
About a mile away, 54-year-old Darryl Mueller is looking at windmills, too, but he's not seeing anything he likes. In fact, he's seeing many things he hates.
Mueller likes to use words like ``noisy,'' ``bloody,'' ``wasteful'' and ``useless'' to describe windmills. When Mueller, owner of Darryl Mueller Construction, first moved to Dyer Road 13 years ago, the area had fewer windmills, and many weren't in working order. But today, Mueller finds himself virtually surrounded by windmills, the closest group only 900 feet from his property.
``If windmills made energy that was profitable, if they didn't kill golden eagles, if they actually worked like they should, if they didn't make so much noise, I would be all for them,'' says Mueller, who has spent more than 10 years crusading against the windmills that make up the Altamont Pass Wind Farm.
``I know these are supposed to be a landmark, but if they want to please the tourists, they should just line up a few along the freeway,'' he says. ``Because the fact is, these things don't work. It's a sham. It's an experiment that went wrong, and there's been a mess here for years because of it.''
While most people wouldn't go as far as Mueller in denouncing the windmills, just about everyone with knowledge of the wind energy industry agrees: While the industry is growing nationally and in Europe, much of the Altamont Pass Wind Farm is a study in underachievement.
Consequently, 16 years after the birth of one of the Bay Area's
notable landmarks, it finds itself at the heart of controversy, its
future very much up in the air.
It has been argued that the Altamont Pass is not so much a wind farm as it is a tax farm.
That's because in 1983, fueled by large federal and state tax incentives, a number of reputable and not-so-reputable companies entered the wind turbine business.
The result was the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area (or Wind Farm), where a variety of early-generation windmills began sprouting across 50,000 acres in eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
With little direction, organization or planning behind the development, it was a disaster in the making. And when the tax credits ended in 1985, the industry fell into the first of several recessions.
``You had a lot of fly-by-night companies getting involved. . . . Others went bankrupt, and the end result is that you have a whole lot of problems,'' says Robert Thayer Jr., a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Davis and the author of ``Gray World, Green Heart: Technology, Nature and the Sustainable Landscape.''
Some of the problems are easy to spot. When Jerry Miller of Livermore drives on Altamont Pass Road, he says he can't help but notice that many of the windmills haven't spun ``in ages.''
``It's obvious that some are broken,'' he says. ``You see blades just hanging on the ground. I know that they're trying to produce renewable energy, but the whole thing is kind of a joke. I know that tourists like them, but that's because they're not in their backyard. These things take up a lot of space and make a lot of noise, but do they really work like they should?''
The answer, most agree, is no. That's one of the reasons the Alameda County Board of Supervisors approved a proposed upgrade last December by Green Ridge Power LLC, Altamont Power LLC, Sea West Windfarms Inc. and Ventura Pacific Inc. to replace as many as 1,270 old windmills with up to 187 new ones.
Alameda County -- which levies taxes on wind-power companies based on the value of their turbines -- stands to win financially with the new windmills, priced at $600,000 and up each.
The modern machines will stand as high as 29 stories (nearly three times the 60- to 80-foot old ones) and produce about six times more energy. In addition, the new larger and slower blades (they will stretch about 200 feet across) are expected to reduce the number of bird deaths. Studies found that more than 1,000 eagles, hawks and other birds have been mangled and chopped by the fast-moving windmills since the early 1990s, but Mueller says he doesn't need studies to know that.
``I have a picture on my Web site of an eagle I found after a collision with a windmill, and it's missing its head,'' Mueller says. ``I've been telling the county about the bird deaths for years, but they ignored it.''
Arthur Feinstein, executive director of the environmental organization Golden Gate Audubon, has studied the bird deaths in the Altamont.
``Altamont happened to be the exact wrong place to build a wind farm,'' Feinstein says. ``If the county (had) done its homework before allowing thousands of windmills there, they would have realized that this is an area heavily populated by hawks and eagles. The new machines are supposed to substantially cut down on deaths, but if they don't, we'll be back out there complaining.''
Environmentalists aren't the only ones complaining. Last December, owners of operations downwind from where the new machines would be installed filed lawsuits in Alameda County Superior Court claiming that county officials failed to adequately consider how the upgrading plan would affect downstream air speed and stability.
The plaintiffs have at least one backer in Alameda Supervisor Gail Steele, the only supervisor to oppose the upgrading.
``The main issue is that people downwind could potentially be hurt downfield from (the upgrading), and I thought we should help work on that, instead of saying `Screw you,' which is generally the board's philosophy,'' Steele says.
She was also concerned about the accuracy of the environmental forecasts of the project, and about how the size of the new windmills would affect the landscape.
Until the lawsuits are resolved, the repowering plan -- which has already begun in California's two other large wind energy areas, San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs and Tehachapi south of Bakersfield -- is on hold.
``The sooner they replace the outdated models (in the Altamont),
the better,'' says wind energy expert and advocate Paul Geip. ``The
Altamont doesn't represent the worst way to do it, but it's certainly
Windmills have come a long way since Don Quixote mistook a quaint mill with oblique vanes for a giant.
Early this century, rural America boasted an estimated 6 million windmills, most of which were wiped out by the 1940s, thanks to fossil-fuel-burning forms of electricity generation. But the energy crisis of the 1970s led to a renewal of interest in this cheap, inexhaustible source of generating electricity. Today, wind energy finds itself a hot commodity.
Europe, specifically Germany and Denmark, is leading the way in wind energy production, but the United States is trying to catch up. In June, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson promised to continue federal economic support to encourage wind power producers to meet 5 percent of the country's electricity needs by the year 2020, compared to the 0.1 percent today, and 1.5 percent in California.
Still, wind energy producers must face one serious question as the industry tries to grow: Where do we put the windmills?
Most places don't produce enough wind to keep the windmills turning, and even if a suitable location is found, wind farm projects today are sometimes met with strong public resistance.
``When everyone jumped on the windmill bandwagon in the '80s, I was drawn to this because it was the first large-scale manifestation of a renewable energy resource in the landscape,'' says UC Davis' Thayer Jr., who has studied public perceptions of the Altamont windmills. ``The biggest question I wanted answered was, `Would people forgive the visual intrusion of windmills if they knew their energy was being produced by a renewable source?' ''
The answer was, it depends. Thayer Jr. found that the farther people lived from the windmills, the more likely they were to romanticize them.
``People who live closer are more likely to know about the history and all the shenanigans that have sometimes characterized the industry,'' he says.
Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty has publicly stated that he ``hates'' looking at the Altamont Pass windmills, but Haggerty's chief of staff, Chris Gray, says Haggerty ``understands the need for the energy and for the agricultural revenue source. They really have few other options in the Altamont, because the soil is not very good.``
Still, many locals say they don't find the windmills to be a visual black eye. Cynthia Comstock, a 23- year-old floral specialist at Helen's Blossom Shop in Livermore, says that she's liked the windmills since she was little.
``It's a landmark, and I think they're beautiful,'' Comstock says. ``Most people I know like them, too.''
Carolyn Schultz, who lives in Tracy but commutes daily over the Altamont Pass to her dog-grooming business in Livermore, says the windmills add beauty to an otherwise boring commute.
``I think they're pretty, and they're certainly better than those barren hills,'' she says.
And then there's Darryl Mueller, who has been living at the center of windmills -- and tilting against them -- for longer than he cares to remember.
``The ones that are there now are bad. The ones that they want to replace them with are the size of huge buildings, so either way, I've got windmills coming out of my ears,'' he says. ``And not in any kind of good way.''
Benoit Denizet-Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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