Largely lost in the oil-soaked hullabaloo of the county’s current energy debates, the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Lompoc wind farm was released last week, setting the stage for a Santa Barbara County Planning Commission hearing later this month. With the potential to power as many as 50,000 homes via several dozen turbines in the wind-rich agricultural land of Miguelito Canyon, the project, if approved, would be the first of its kind in the county.
Since early 2006, international wind power firm Acciona has been angling to put as many as 65 turbines-each about 400 feet high-on some 3,000 acres of privately owned land south of Lompoc, adjacent to Vandenberg Air Force Base. While the forecasted energy returns-285 million kilowatt-hours a year-have renewable resource advocates drooling, the project is not without an environmental downside, according to the several-hundred-page document released on Monday, September 15.
According to the report by the Aspen Environmental Group, the wind harvesting farm would have Class I (i.e. “significant and unavoidable”) impacts on views, and on bird and bat populations in the area. As to the former, the bulk of the eyesores would be seen from Jalama County Park. With its coastal location fewer than five miles from the farm, the park would offer views of as many as 13 of the turbines: three along the base of Tranquillon Mountain and 10 more atop the ridge. Additionally, travelers on San Miguelito Canyon Road would be able to see a handful more of the modern-day windmills, while people using nearby Highway 1 would be reportedly inundated with the sight of new power lines and poles associated with the project as it transfers power to PG&E’s Cabrillo substation. (It should be noted, however, that the applicant has offered to re-route the Highway 1 infrastructure through the land it is leasing for the project, such that it won’t be in plain public sight until the edge of Lompoc City proper, according to Acciona’s Harley McDonald.)
Viewsheds aside, it is the potentially deadly implication of adding dozens of rotating fans, with blades 126 feet long, to the open air of the North County coastal area that has given the most pause to environmentalists. As the EIR puts it, during the estimated 30-year lifespan of the project, “unknown numbers of protected bird and bat populations may be killed.” While Acciona has promised, among other precautionary measures, to site each turbine such that it is at least 500 feet away from known critical habitat areas, the undeniable fact of animal mortality has groups like the California Department of Fish & Game, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Audubon Society, and the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center raising an eyebrow of concern. The Environmental Defense Center’s Brian Trautwein explained earlier this week that the center is still reviewing the EIR and expects to have an official take on it before the Planning Commission hearing.
Acciona spokesperson McDonald explained this week that the company is “very happy” with the current incarnation of the EIR and remains hopeful that its late 2009 target date for getting underway in Lompoc can become a reality. Admitting that the farm is a “fairly large industrial project,” McDonald took pride in pointing out that all of the seven families offering to lease their agriculturally zoned land in turn for payments akin to oil royalties won’t have to change their line of work. “We will actually only use just over one percent of the land we are leasing,” said McDonald before adding, “[Lompoc’s] quiet. It’s agriculture. It’s rural and we want to keep it that way.”
Alluding to the controversial pro-oil vote by the county supes late last month, which has been decried at both the local and national level, McDonald called the wind farm “the right project in the right place at the right time.”
The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission will be considering the final EIR for approval on September 30.