On November 20, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the installation of 29 wind turbines on 3,000 acres of land in the hills south of Lompoc, a project that would double Santa Barbara’s renewable energy production and provide for the electricity needs of 30 percent of the county’s households.
The hearing sought to balance the need for renewable energy production with the impacts of the project on the local ecosystem, considered by many to be both aesthetically pristine and ecologically unique. “These are the resources we have, and they’re very special. They have the right to special consideration,” said Planning Commission Chair John Parke.
A thoughtful-but-energetic public comment section saw arguments by environmentalists both for and against the project, highlighting different strains of thinking within the local environmental movement. The project moves forward as California pursues a goal of reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 in order to combat the escalating threats of climate disaster.
The Strauss Wind Energy Project (SWEP) is an updated version of the Lompoc Wind Energy Project (LWEP) that was approved in 2009 but then scrapped before construction could begin due to economic conditions created by the Great Recession. SWEP uses the same section of land originally approved in 2009 and would create 29 wind turbines instead of the 65 that were approved in 2009. Since 2009, wind turbine technology has advanced in sophistication and efficiency, allowing for turbines to generate comparable amounts of energy with fewer turbines. The turbines in 2009 would have been around 400 feet tall, whereas the new turbines would range from 427 to 492 feet in height. The project would reduce CO2 emissions by around 40,000 metric tons per year and generate 98 megawatts of energy a year.
The project, bordered by Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), private ranch land, and the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, would additionally include an onsite substation, a meteorological tower, and a 7.3-mile transmission line connecting the site to the PG&E grid in Lompoc via a new switching station. In order to transport the turbine blades, which are between 160 and 225 feet, some sections of San Miguelito Road will also be widened. The project would have an operational duration of 30 years and would provide between 50 and 100 jobs during the construction phase and five to seven permanent jobs during the operational phase. It would also provide $40 million in tax revenue to the county over 30 years.
SWEP also includes new efforts to mitigate the impact of the project on the surrounding ecosystem, especially concerning oak tree destruction. Under the 2009 version of the project, 607 oak trees would have been destroyed, a number brought down to 225 through mitigation efforts. However, concerns remain that the impact would still be substantial, with risks to the local bird population especially prevalent among groups like the Santa Barbara Audubon Society. Other organizations from the environmental community made the case that, in the face of mounting challenges to the environment from climate change, high priority needs to be given to rapid, large-scale projects that move away from fossil-fuel production.
While SoCal-based Strauss Wind LLC, an affiliate of the German company BayWa LLC, made the case that the project has been subjected to a thorough environmental impact review process, and pointed to large reductions in the number of oak trees impacted as evidence of efforts to mitigate harm to the surrounding area, many evinced skepticism.
“The project’s location is unique due to its geography, biodiversity, ecology, and geology,” said Lori Gaskin, speaking for the Santa Barbara Audubon Society. “As stewards of the land and its wildlife, we have to be cognizant of the fact we are setting a precedent and ensure we are wise and honorable stewards of this responsibility.”
The potential harm to local bird populations, especially rare birds of prey such as the golden eagle and California condor, loomed large during the public comment section. In a statement from the Santa Barbara Audubon Society, the group stated that “SWEP will cause a level of harm to birds (especially raptors) and their habitat that we find unacceptable.” The EIR for the project stated that the installation would result in Class I impacts on the local bird population and that: “Unknown numbers of special status and non-sensitive birds and bats could be at risk of dying through collisions with the WTGs over the duration of the project.”
Strauss proposed a number of practices that could be implemented to reduce risks to local bird populations, such as installing sensors that would halt turbine rotation whenever a large bird crosses into a zone surrounding the turbine. “We take environmental impacts very seriously, and we’ve put in an extraordinary effort to study the impacts of this project. We’re going to abide by every mitigation effort in the EIR, but we’ve got to get this thing moving,” said Daniel Duke on behalf of Strauss.
Strauss now awaits several other permits and approvals required to move forward with construction from departments like Public Works and the Department of Fish and Game. Duke also stated that Strauss needs to complete construction before December 31, 2020, in order to obtain federal tax credits, and that Strauss would pull out of the project if further periods of study were required that could jeopardize completing the project by that date.
The effect of the project on indigenous communities was also discussed at the hearing. Kenneth Kahn, chair of the Santa Ynez Valley Chumash band, spoke at the meeting in favor of the project, declaring that he was pleased that several turbines that would have been located distressingly close to a sacred Chumash site had been nixed from the project. However, groups such as Food and Water Watch stated that approval of the project was far from unanimous within the Chumash community and that several bands of the Chumash population have “major concerns” about the project.
A wide array of environmental and social justice groups, such as the Sierra Club, Community Environmental Council, and the Santa Barbara Standing Rock Coalition voiced their support for the project, citing the need to move forward with speedy and large-scale renewable energy projects in order to help meet California’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
“We need all hands on deck, because climate change is the moral issue of our time,” said Jane Quandt, a pastor at Valley of the Flowers United Church of Christ in Lompoc.
Others pointed out that droughts and wildfires, which are increasing in both frequency and intensity due to climate change, pose a drastic threat to the flora and fauna of the county, and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be a high priority.
“How many birds and oak trees are killed by drought, killed by wildfire?” said Michael Chiacos from the Community Environmental Council, arguing in favor of the project. “It’s time for us to step up and do our part.”