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November 20, 2000 [WSJ.com -- Page One Feature]

Darryl Mueller Battles Windmills
In a Lonely Effort to Save Eagles


ALTAMONT PASS, Calif. -- On his speakerphone from back East, the big-utility executive lists the pluses of making power from clean, inexhaustible wind. He works for FPL Energy, America's biggest wind-power producer. The Altamont Pass, 40 miles east of San Francisco, is home to America's biggest wind farm. FPL Energy, part of FPL Group Inc., is the Altamont's biggest windmill owner. Right now, it is planning to replace lots of old windmills with fewer new ones. The idea is to make them big.

Lonely Causes:
An occasional look at unfashionable crusaders and their unlikely, unending crusades.

Previous "Causes":

[Go]Jim Campano Has Crusaded Tirelessly Over Decades, Seeking a Sense of 'Home' (Aug. 23)

[Go]In New Hampshire, a Doctor Tries to Promote Seat Belts (July 5)

[Go]Polisario's Plight: Fight Over Forgotten Land (June 7)

[Go]The Right Warred Against Fluoride, but Now It's the Left Wing's Turn (April 12)

The bigger they are, the cheaper they run, Robert Morrison explains; he is FPL's vice president for wind. Each windmill will stand 20 stories high. Mr. Morrison thinks they will be pretty, those big blades turning lazily in the sky.

"They don't seem larger than the old machines," he says. "It's a visual illusion. You don't have a person standing next to these things when you look at them."

Oh yes you do. Like most other wind-power experts, Mr. Morrison doesn't know him, but the person is a ranch owner, a shade under six feet tall and a tad gaunt. He stands next to windmills in the Altamont every day. If an engineer drew this whirling landscape, the man could pose for that miniature figure denoting "human scale." To him, windmills are bird-murdering monsters. It's an impossible dream, but he'd like to knock them all down.

"Name's not Don, is it?" asks a PR man at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No, name's Darryl. Darryl Mueller.

Don -- Don Parker -- is his helper, and at the moment he's yelling, "Hey, Darryl, got a squeegee?" Mr. Clark is up on a 30-ton Komatsu excavator with an arm down a pipe, changing a filter. His boss hands him up a roll of paper towels and says, "Drop in a bunch of these, get rid of the oil."

[Darryl Mueller portrait]

Mr. Mueller wears an orange T-shirt bearing his company's name: Darryl Mueller Construction. He owns the excavator and a backhoe, and travels around Alameda County, digging and drilling. His neck is sun-creased; he is 55 years old.

"Some people like cars, I like equipment," Mr. Mueller will say. He splits the windmill world in two as well: The public loves windmills; so do ranchers, environmentalists, federal, state and local politicians, power companies and economists. And Darryl Mueller hates windmills.

"One person seems to be fighting them," he says. "That's me."

Squatting under the Komatsu, he watches Don drain oil into a drum. A rank of windmills stands on the hill behind him, blades unmoving in a weak breeze. Across Dyer Road, on the high ridge beyond the slope of his ten acres, stands a whole army of them. At its peak, in the '80s, the Altamont had about 7,000 windmills; it has about 5,000 now. From his yard, Mr. Mueller sees a couple of hundred.

His animosity springs from intimacy, not expertise. "People in Berkeley, they get on this conservation thing full time and get paid for it," he says. But have they seen a twisted generator cable throw sparks onto dry grass? Or a golden eagle circling toward oblivion?

"Darryl, can you empty this bucket?" Don Parker calls. Mr. Mueller waves a fist at the hills. "This here's an experiment," he says. "How long do you continue an experiment before you decide it's a failure?" He hands the bucket to Mr. Parker, who says, "Windmills don't bother me. I live an hour and twenty minutes from here."

When Mr. Mueller talks about windmills, his voice often grows louder and louder until it cracks into a falsetto. He says things like: "The people who designed them went to high school, they could not have gone to college." And, "After a while, I get numb to what these people are telling me and I get a vengeance."

Five years from now, say the power companies, wind will be competing without tax breaks against fossil fuels. By 2020, says the federal government, it will generate 5% of the nation's electricity. Sooner or later, say the environmentalists, somebody may find out how to deter birds of prey from flying into spinning blades.

To them all, Mr. Mueller says this: "You're killing the eagles. You don't have a plan to stop it. You're producing expensive power at a cost to the environment. You could build power plants with the money you're throwing out on these hills. It's taxpayer supported. Where's the value?"

Spinning His Wheels?

His campaign against windmills, in its 13th year, wouldn't qualify Mr. Mueller as a master of spin. His letters and faxes are orthographically challenged, his Web site (www.darrylmueller.com) typographically impaired. His organization -- Alameda Landowners Against Rural Mismanagement, or ALARM -- has a discernible membership of one.

Is Darryl Mueller mad? An idealist? Both? In fact, if the federally protected golden eagles that nest in Altamont Pass could clap, they just might applaud his gallantry. But his labors to win over humanity have been downright Sisyphean.

He pulls an apple off a tree and chomps it, watching a red-tailed hawk spiral up above. He passes a wrench to Don Parker and goes into the ranch house to finish a half-eaten sandwich.

Mr. Mueller came to the Altamont Pass in 1986. He considered buying a place in Pleasanton but decided it was overpriced. He married the owner instead, and they moved to Dyer Road. He and Susan, who are devout Christians, home-school their 12-year-old, Vivian. Bird books and Bible tracts stuff their living-room shelves. A picture of a bald eagle hangs over the sofa.

"I grew up in Pennsylvania," Mr. Mueller says at the dining table. "We didn't have eagles out there. Now, I'm living right where the eagles are. It's kind of a novel thing."

Old wooden oil derricks littered the state when he was a kid. He did farm work, tried his luck in Kentucky a while, then followed a brother out West. On first sight, the string of windmills behind his new house in the Altamont brought those old derricks to mind.

The California "wind rush" had begun just three years earlier, in 1983; "tax rush" was more like it. Investors got credits for building windmills, none for generating power. When a windmill conked out, nobody fixed it. When the tax break ended in 1985, most of the country's turbine manufacturers closed up shop.

"Those windmills, I thought they were getting ready to be tore down," Mr. Mueller says. But in 1988, they began whirling again. He looked at the ridge across Dyer Road and saw bulldozers making room for 80 more. The state had a new subsidy. U.S. Windpower, a company since deceased, was dipping in. Its land bordered Mr. Mueller's. The county had issued a permit without telling him. And he was mad.

"I told U.S. Windpower -- I said you're making an enemy and I'm not getting off it. That's when I started investigating. Turns out this is the biggest golden-eagle breeding ground in the world, and the windmills are knocking off the eagles."

He spots a fly on the table, picks up a swatter, whacks at it, and the fly buzzes off.

Unflappable Proponents

On Dyer Road, Mr. Mueller tried to start a protest. Landowners collect rent on windmills, and most wouldn't sign up, but a few did. They sued the county. Mr. Mueller soon discovered that a state biologist had said in 1986 that "wind projects should not be built close to areas where birds concentrate," and reported in 1988 that dozens of California's 1,000 golden eagles died in the pass each year. Mr. Mueller also learned that killing golden eagles had been illegal in the U.S. since 1940.

He complained to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "All parties agree," said the reply, that the "best approach" to eagle deaths was "ongoing study."

Mr. Mueller puts a potato chip between his teeth and gnashes it. "Why didn't they enforce the law? Does anybody care?"

All kinds of people do, truly; that's why the Altamont Pass is an environmentalist's impasse. What is more worrisome, golden eagles or global warming? Ongoing studies cope with that conflict the way ongoing negotiations cope with the Middle East.

Through the early '90s, California paid people to walk around windmills and count dead birds. Now the feds pay. The National Wind Technology Center of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory helps the National Wind Coordinating Committee hold National Avian-Wind Power Planning Meetings of "key stakeholders" under the auspices of RESOLVE, a nonprofit environmental dispute-resolution facilitator.

Everybody wants to know why windmills kill birds. Experts work on things like "raptor visual capacities and blade-pattern conspicuity" using "biostatistical and population modeling analysis." So far, it is known that golden eagles -- whose eyesight is three times better than ours and who can nab mallards while diving at 150 miles an hour -- smack into windmills. Nobody knows why.

Darryl Mueller, amid all the studying, sees himself less as a stakeholder than a bagholder. "When do we have enough studies?" he says. "The facts are in." He goes into a back room where his windmill files are. A picture in the hall shows him at the Wailing Wall on a tour of Jerusalem. "Boy, windmills ought to be a small problem compared to that," Mr. Mueller says.

A Setback in Court

His own peace proposal envisions a demolition contract for his Komatsu. But that flight of fancy fell to earth in Mr. Mueller's 1988 suit against the windmills that sprung up across from his ranch. U.S. Windpower had sunk $24 million into them already. In 1990, a judge ruled that Mr. Mueller should have complained earlier and he threw the case out of court.

Dismally, Mr. Mueller aimed his ire at windmill economics: They cost a ton to maintain, only work when the wind blows, catch fire. And cheaper coal is getting cleaner. Mr. Mueller figures that coal will last another hundred years, and by then everything will be running on fusion.

For support on economic issues, he looks to free-market papers from the Cato Institute, and to his neighbor Larry Allen.

"Years ago," says Mr. Allen, "they told us water windmills would solve everything. Never worked." He owns Roll-N-Rock Ranch, up the road. Toward sunset, Mr. Mueller has gone over for a visit. Mr. Allen, 72 and a truck driver, is his one ally on Dyer Road.

"People think the wind's free," says Mr. Allen, "Well it's not reliable for the price. There's nothing free in the wind."

And the dying birds?

"Which birds?" he says. "You mean eagles? I don't think there's many around. Never seen one."

Blowing Off Steam

After his court defeat, Mr. Mueller retreated to letter writing. Then, it seemed, economics rode to the rescue. A company called Kenetech had taken over the Altamont's windmills; in 1996, it went bust. Mr. Mueller felt a triumphal tingle: "I thought, now those windmills can die." And some wind-power experts also seemed to catch a touch of Mr. Mueller's idealism, at least on the subject of eagles.

"The Altamont isn't your typical wind-resource area," Karin Sinclair allows. She oversees bird studies for the National Wind Technology Center. "Golden eagles live there. It was their space first." Brad Bortner tracks migratory birds for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "If we knew what we know now," he says, "we probably would have suggested they build a wind-power project somewhere else."

With the Altamont's dilemma finally recognized, newer wind farms are landing where birds don't. Studies go on before windmills go up. Yet no one, apart from Darryl Mueller, is inclined to let Kenetech's old windmills rot. It's a matter of saving a few birds, or a lot of money.

The new lord of the Altamont is FPL Energy. It bought Kenetech's windmills and wants to replace them with about 200 huge ones. FPL must complete them by the end of 2001, or lose a tax credit. Mr. Mueller objected mightily; the county ignored him. But some owners of small windmills have sued to block the project on environmental grounds: They claim the huge windmills will steal their wind.

When Mr. Mueller tells about the wind-theft suit, which doesn't say a thing about birds, he doubles over laughing.

A few afternoons later, the windmills above Dyer Road are spinning in the breeze. Mr. Mueller, who has offered a windmill tour, is moving metal plates. In the living room, Mrs. Mueller is entertaining Colleen Power, a friend from Tracy.

"I stay out of it all," Susan Mueller says. "Darryl's the one. He's just a highly concerned individual." Mrs. Power says, "He's got convictions." "About right and wrong," says Mrs. Mueller.

Just then, her husband walks through saying, "I gotta load these plates." Mrs. Mueller says, "You want a sandwich, Darryl?" But he's out the door. "He just goes and goes," she says.

In a while, Mr. Mueller begins his tour, heading off in his pickup across the road and up a steep track into a windmill forest. At the ridge top, as he watches turkey vultures wheeling above miles of wind farm, Mr. Mueller's eye fixes on a puff of cloud under a windmill behind a horse ranch. The puff seems to grow.

He grabs a cell phone, dials his wife, and yells, "Fire!"

Ten minutes later, he is standing at a gate on Dyer Road while four fire engines pass through and head toward the smoke. The chief stops his truck and says, "You know what started this?"

"It's those twists in the cord," says Mr. Mueller. "It shorts out and sparks come down." The chief writes on his clipboard, says, "You never can tell," and drives past.

"Finally got a chance to tell somebody something," says Mr. Mueller. But he won't linger for the chief's report. "They won't tell you anything," he says. He jumps into his pickup and roars off. To Darryl Mueller's thinking, nothing connected with windmills can be on the level. If the Altamont Pass were a pinball machine, its bells would be clanging, its buzzers buzzing, and its lights flashing:

Tilt! Tilt! Tilt!

Write to Barry Newman at barry.newman@wsj.com

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