Santa Barbara Audubon Society supports renewable energy production, including wind energy. However, wind farms that are not properly planned, sited, and operated can have a devastating effect on the environment, especially on birds. A recent opinion piece in the Independent by a consultant on projects like this one gives a false and misleading impression of the environmental impact of the Strauss Wind Energy Project (SEP). In fact, the impacts of the Strauss project to birds and trees would be significant and would be substantially greater than the previously approved Lompoc Wind Energy Project (LWEP).
The impacts are greater because of choices that the developer made in the project design. The Strauss project was not designed to reduce bird strikes, as required by state and federal guidelines. The applicant chose to not consider the impact on birds whatsoever in locating the wind turbines. As a result, the project will have a Class I impact on bird mortality, including to the fully protected golden eagle, which is regularly seen on the site. We have recommended that the county change the wind-farm design with the advice of an expert on the placement of the wind turbines to reduce bird mortality. Most wind farms that have been designed in the United States in the last several years have sited their turbines in a way that reduces avian mortality. Why should Strauss be any different?
The earlier op-ed touts the fact that the Strauss project will have fewer wind turbines than the earlier Lompoc project and claims that it is “significantly safer for birds and raptors.” But according to the county’s draft EIR, “Although the SWEP would have fewer WTGs [wind turbine generators] than the LWEP (30 compared with 65), the WTGs would be larger and taller (up to 492 feet tall compared with 397 feet tall), and therefore, may place the rotor-swept area into the flight paths of birds that would have flown over the LWEP. Therefore, the overall risk of the [Strauss] Project to birds and bats is considered similar to that presented by the LWEP.” This directly refutes the claims made in the op-ed.
Moreover, to transport the larger turbine blades over land, the SWEP will destroy at least 225 mature oak trees in violation of county oak protection policies. This destruction of oak trees is preventable, as we pointed out in our comment letter on the draft EIR. Indeed, the smaller wind turbines proposed with the Lompoc project would not have entailed these significant impacts to oaks. The developer’s claims that they have reduced oak removal (from 607 to 225) is based on the oldest trick in a developer’s playbook: Propose a more impactful project than necessary, then proclaim yourself a hero for modifying the project to achieve what you really wanted anyway! Audubon has recommended to the county that the project design be modified to be more similar to the former project, which would reduce the destruction of oak trees to near zero.
The earlier op-ed claims that the Strauss plans “fully respond to all concerns voiced by local stakeholders.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Of the 55 comment letters received by the county on the draft EIR, 43 of them opposed the project outright, expressed serious concerns, and/or advocated major changes to its design.
Santa Barbara County can and should have the benefits of renewable wind energy production. The Strauss developer has chosen to design this wind farm in a way that is environmentally destructive. Unless Strauss is redesigned, its environmental impacts are unacceptable.
Dolores Pollock is the president of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society.