The farm of whirling wind turbines would be located on 80 acres of federal Bureau of Land Management land along Walker Ridge, which straddles Lake and Colusa counties, about two hours northwest of Sacramento. If approved, between 29 and 42 wind towers would produce up to 70 megawatts of renewable energy power.
“Wind is abundant,” said Peter Eaton, director of business development for AltaGas Ltd., a Calgary, Alberta-based company that seeks to build the wind farm. “It costs you nothing to harness the wind.”
Earlier this year, AltaGas submitted an application to the BLM that outlined an initial plan of development. The company has leased 7,882 acres of the agency’s land located 10 miles south of the southeastern edge of the Mendocino National Forest. Construction of the wind farm would occur on 500 of those acres, and the facility, once completed, would take up just 80 acres, including existing roads. The land would remain open to the public.
Rich Burns, field manager for the BLM Ukiah office, said AltaGas’s Notice of Federal Intent, which includes the company’s plan of development, will be published in the Federal Register “any day now.” The publication will set off a public comment period, which Burns expects will be extended from 30 days to 45 days and will include two public meetings, in Clear Lake and Williams.
The project involves “two counties and two political boundaries,” Burns said. “There is a lot to discuss.”
The published notice of intent will include some documentation from studies-a botanical survey, bird and bat studies, and cultural analysis-that AltaGas has conducted thus far, Burns said.
“We’re thrilled to be in California and working with the BLM in the Ukiah office,” Eaton said. “The standard of care exercised by (AltaGas and the BLM) is high.”
AltaGas began in 1994 as a gas company and branched out into alternative energy in 2006. The company has been a forerunner of clean energy in Canada, operating British Columbia’s first wind farm, Bear Mountain, since November 2009. That project has tremendous community support, Eaton said.
In California, the company has three other wind power projects in the works, but they are in the “predevelopment stage,” Eaton said.
Eaton believes his company will succeed because federal and state initiatives in the past few years have enlivened the market for clean power. “The renewable energy industry has become more robust,” Eaton said.
In 2006, the California state legislature passed a law requiring the state’s three largest private utilities to procure 20 percent of their retail electricity sales from renewable energy by the end of 2010. In 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger upped the goal to 33 percent by 2020.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has made clean, renewable energy a priority on the national level.
“The (Obama) administration is really going forward with renewable energy development on public lands and the BLM is a big part of that,” Burns said.
“The utilities are hearing the message loud and clear,” said Eaton, who added that his company is seeking financial support for the project from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
AltaGas is considering two options for Walker Ridge: 29 turbines that produce 2.3 megawatts each, or 42 turbines that produce 1.6 megawatts each. The turbines would be 264 feet high with blades 161 feet long. The project construction calls for widening Walker Ridge Road from 26 feet to 40 feet.
The energy output would make it a medium-sized facility relative to other wind farms in existence, Eaton said. Wind power technology “is very well established,” Eaton said. “From a construction perspective, it can be replicated relatively quickly.”
The abundant wind isn’t the only reason why the Walker Ridge location is ideal. It is also remote, far away from residences and towns, while proximate to an existing PG&E transmission line. Only minor network upgrades will be necessary.
Currently, California’s wind farms generate enough power for 750,000 homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association. According to a report from the National Renewable Energy Lab, wind farms have the potential to provide up to 39.4 percent of the state’s current electricity needs.
A U.S. Department of Energy study looked at increasing wind-powered electricity to 20 percent nationally. It found that such an increase, by 2030, could create 500,000 jobs. It could also increase property tax values by $1.5 billion by 2030.
The Walker Ridge wind park would require up to a few hundred jobs during construction and four to eight full-time jobs once built.
Melissa Fulton, chief executive officer of the Lakeport Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is encouraged by the possibility of job creation. “We generally believe it will have a favorable impact,” Fulton said.
Vallerye Anderson, campaign and outreach director for Tuleyome, an environmental nonprofit group based in Woodland that is focused on preserving the Northern California inner-coastal range, described Walker Ridge as a pristine environment of “high ecological and botanical value.”
There are plants growing in the serpentine soil that grow nowhere else, Anderson said. On the ridge, “it’s like being on top of the world,” she said.
Both Tuleyome and the Sierra Club expressed concern that the project could disturb and disperse mercury, chromium and asbestos contained in the soil, and that these materials could seep into the Indian Valley Reservoir, as well as into the Cache Creek and Bear Creek watersheds, and harm fish populations and agricultural livestock.
Installing wind turbines would require “a tremendous amount of grading,” said Victoria Brandon, member of the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Redwood Chapter.
As well, both groups are concerned about the potential impact on birds, raptors and bats. Eagles have been known to nest in the area, and Burns said that AltaGas has identified one nest near the construction zone, and is studying it for activity. “We would like to know how AltaGas would mitigate damages to those (bird) populations,” Anderson said.
Also, Anderson said her group would like the wind data collected by AltaGas and previous project owners to be made public. AltaGas has been collecting meteorological data from the site since 2009, and has wind data collected by other companies on the site going back to 2002. “We don’t think there is enough wind potential to merit the ecological damage,” Anderson said.
All concerns aside, neither Tuleyome nor the Sierra Club has taken an official stand against the project. Both say they are in favor of renewable energy projects depending on the circumstances.
“We want to see if we could minimize the extent of the project and work with AltaGas,” Anderson said. “We will make a decision once we know what kind of mitigation they’re planning.”
Burns said that two nearby Wintun tribes and one Pomo tribe have asked to be availed of information as the planning process progresses. But no tribe has expressed particular objections to the project, Burns said.
Eaton said, “We are committed to an open dialogue and relationship with our supporters and detractors.”
The project must adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act, the federal Endangered Species Act, among many other federal and state laws. “The environmental impact statement progress is very rigorous,” Eaton said. “We take the environmental work very seriously.”
Depending on the permitting process, Eaton expects the wind farm to open in 2012 or 2013.
Eaton said, “We hope the project will be up and running for many decades.”