Stand beneath one of the massive three blade wind turbines dotting the Altamont Pass hills when they are working and you will hear a “whum, whum” sound.
After a while it becomes background noise — or white noise if you will — that eventually dissipates much like when you get use to a steady stream of freeway noise or a babbling brook.
The 3,700 wind turbines in the windy rolling hills of the Diablo Range between the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area is the largest wind farm in the world in terms of the sheer concentration of turbines. They produce roughly 576 megawatts of clean power a year.
As with everything else in life, there are trade-offs. The turbines at one time were killing what some estimated to be 4,700 birds a year including 1,245 from high profile species such as the burrowing owl, American kestrel, red-tailed hawk and the fully protected golden eagle.
The switch to bigger blades compared to original models that has smaller blades and rotated so fast that they performed like Ginsu Knives on steroids when it came to slicing and dicing birds has been a blessing of sorts. The larger blade turbines are credited with cutting the annual mortality of the four specific bird species from 1,245 annually to 628.
While that sounds like good news, it isn’t.
The nesting density for golden eagles in the Livermore area where they soar over the Ohlone Wilderness and Lake Del Valle without seemingly a care in the world thanks to the absence of the green power movement is the highest worldwide. There were 44 pairs noted in a 1997 study or a density of one pair per 12 square miles. Researchers surveyed the same area again in 2005. The nesting density decreased by 65 percent to one pair for every 36 square miles.
The Predatory Bird Research Group put the golden eagle kill rate in 2005 from the Altamont Pass wind turbines at somewhere between 40 and 100 plus a year. That study also radio-tagged 267 golden eagles. Of those, 100 dead birds were recovered including 42 killed by blade strikes.
The research led to steps that reduced overall bird kills in half. While that is far from acceptable, it is significantly better.
The Altamont Pass wind farm took hold in the 1970s when the California Environmental Quality Act was in its infancy. Since then a lot has been learned about the connection between spiking birds deaths — including protected species such as the golden eagle and the bald eagle — and wind turbines.
The federal government is now requiring everyone to be better stewards except — you guessed it — the federal government.
Since the Obama Administration has elevated green energy to sacred cow status, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to change permits it issues for “accidental” eagle kills involving wind farms from 5 to 30 years. The new proposal — according to the federal government’s own experts — would allow upwards of 4,200 bald eagles to be killed a year. At that rate in less than 20 years bald eagles would be on life support as a species given the Fish and Wildlife Service currently estimates there are 72,434 bald eagles in the United States. The agency’s own eagle experts concede the 30-year permits, if issued, will lead to “real, significant, and accumulative biological impacts.”
Here’s a little factoid to put with that observation: The Wildlife Society printed a study in 2014 that put the national wind turbine kill numbers each year at 800,000 bats, 83,000 raptors, and 490,000 other birds. Today, wind turbine capacity has jumped almost 25 percent. The Obama administration wants it to triple by 2030. And while those bigger blades on new turbines are cutting the kill rate in half there are a lot more blades out there hacking up birds.
Worrisome numbers? Not really. The Obama administration is so infatuated with wind power that the order has been given to make it work. And firms are lining up to do so thanks to tax credits Uncle Sam is handing out.
Just so we are clear, tax credits are offered as a big fat profitable carrot to encourage private sector investments when a project or endeavor doesn’t pencil out. In other words without federal tax credits investing in wind power it would be a losing proposition. In fact, it was California tax credits that gave the Altamont Pass wind farms life in the 1970s.
It gets worse. The same Fish and Wildlife Service teamed up with the Justice Department to criminally prosecute three oil firms in North Dakota for accidently killing six ducks and one phoebe. That’s the price one pays for not mounting a wind turbine on top of an oil drilling platform.
To recap, favored green industries in business to make money get federal subsidizes, can skirt the intent of CEQA by the federal government helping them make a mockery of the process, and can kill the national bird and other protected species at will.
It’s proof positive that critics are wrong when they say the entrenched government we have in place on the federal level is for the birds.
They mean “business” in the truest since that Al Capone uttered the word.