Compared to past contentious land-use issues in Santa Barbara County, the $120 million Lompoc Wind Farm Project appears to be soaring on an updraft. Despite criticism from some who claim the county has not researched thoroughly enough how the proposal could impact its surroundings, the first-ever wind energy project on the Central Coast may be only eight months from breaking ground.
Located on windswept Tranquillon Ridge, seven miles south of the city limits, the Lompoc Wind Farm Project is expected to generate as many as 120 megawatts of electricity per hour-enough to power 60,000 homes. Acciona-a Spanish conglomerate reputed to be the largest purveyor of renewable energy in the world and the firm responsible for Nevada Solar One, the third-largest solar plant in the world-will invest $120 million to erect 60 to 80 towering energy-generating turbines, similar to those in Tehachapi and Palm Springs. “Guarded acceptance” is how county planner Kevin Drude described overall reaction to the project after an initial presentation in Lompoc three weeks ago.
A public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) at Lompoc City Hall on Thursday, August 30, drew a modest gathering of 47. And while some voiced complaints against the project, a total of only 10 people spoke on the matter. “I thought there might be more speakers,” admitted John Day, project manager for the county’s Planning Department.
The DEIR identifies only two types of unavoidable long-term impacts: visual and biological. The former would result from the proximity of the wind turbines to Jalama Beach County Park and that of a new power line running along State Highway 1. The power line can be hidden by use of an over-the-hill route to the PG&E substation in Lompoc, but the turbines will still be visible from Jalama unless the project is limited to 50 structures.
Members of the Audubon Society at the meeting renewed their objections about the project’s biological impacts: namely that the turbines-285 tons each and up to 328 feet high, with blades on the largest of the structures reaching 492 feet into the sky at the peak of each revolution-pose a threat to birds and bats. “We’re not totally against it,” said Tamarah Taaffe, treasurer of the La Purisima chapter of Audubon. “We just want it placed optimally. On any wind farm, placement is the most important thing. Our basic goal was to support it and work with them on placement.”
Taaffe added that she considers the county’s avian studies inadequate. “Their bird studies were like trying to determine how many kids would go to a school by driving by during Easter vacation,” she said. Taaffe named the California condor, long-eared owl, horned lark, and golden eagle as species at risk. “The blades move at 200 miles per hour at the tip : Each blade is replaced within a second. That’s not terribly slow.” At the DEIR hearing, Audubon California board of directors member Steve Ferry asserted that bird surveys were conducted on only five days and during the afternoon, when birds are least likely to be present. He said the draft neglected mitigation measures such as radar, which could track avian traffic and shut down turbines as needed.
“We know birds will be killed,” Drude acknowledged of the biological impacts. “So we’re going to assume the worst. Since we don’t know the number, we’ll adapt to it. We’re suggesting ‘adaptive mitigation.’ If there are turbines that are more dangerous [than others], they could be shut down at certain hours or seasons.” Other mitigation measures may include painting the blades and changing the lighting.
State Department of Parks and Recreation District Superintendent Richard Rojas also questioned the thoroughness of the DEIR at the hearing, telling county staff the document inadequately addressed issues of visual impact on La Purisima Mission State Historic Park. “It seems no effort was made to contact park staff [about] its potential impacts to the park,” Rojas said. The meeting also allowed a handful of nearby neighbors to the project’s proposed site to express concerns about noise. “I built my dream home on San Miguelito Road,” said former Lompoc city councilmember George Bedford. “I hope somebody can reassure me that I can sleep at night.”
Acciona Project Manager Harley McDonald said she heard nothing new at the hearing. “People seem to be pretty supportive,” she said. McDonald also asserted that renewable energy is not simply a portion of Acciona’s business, but that the firm generates only renewable energy.
Former Lompoc mayor Joyce Howerton-an opponent of many past energy proposals-said she was excited at the prospect of the wind farm. “It’s a long time coming,” she said. Though Howerton said she had initial concerns about damage to birds, those had been allayed by the advancing technology used in more recent projects. “In the newer projects there’s a more limited amount of harm,” she said.
Leroy Scolari is one of six property owners on the ridge who have signed contracts with Acciona to have the farm built on their land. He sees the wind farm as a local buffer against brownouts. “It would supply the needs of the majority of the North County. Of course the power will go into the PG&E grid, but in terms of power outages in times of high demand, the closer to the source you are the safer you’ll be,” Scolari said. PG&E has already contracted for two-thirds of the total output as it seeks to ratchet up the percentage of renewable power it utilizes.
An eight-month construction period is slated to begin next spring. It will bring temporary disruption, especially along narrow, winding San Miguelito Road. The payoff though, according to the report, is the potential 350 million kilowatts annually. “If it’s a success, it’ll put us on the map,” Howerton added. “We’re a forward-thinking community concerned about renewable energy.” With a second energy firm exploring another nearby site, she was even ready with a quip: “With the wind velocity we have, we could blow into the lead in the field.”
The DEIR is available to the public online at countyofsb.org/energy/projects/, and in print at libraries and county planning offices.