On Tuesday, July 27, the Los Angeles Times reported the groundbreaking of the immense Alta Wind Energy Center near the Mojave Desert town of Tehachapi. The story described a facility “being called the largest wind power project in the country,” and its potential to generate three gigawatts of electricity for Southern California homes. Though light on opposing voices, the story did quoted the president of the nearby Old West Ranch Property Owners Association, who object to the project.
A day later, Tehachapi – and particularly the Old West Ranch – again made national headlines, albeit for quite different reasons. The afternoon of the groundbreaking a fire broke out on the Old West Ranch. NPR carried the story in its morning news update the next day. Firefighters already strained by a blaze in the nearby Sequoia National Forest struggled to keep up with the inferno. Dozens of homes at Old West Ranch were lost. Despite initial worries, wind turbines were left unscathed.
The news brought a glimpse of what life was actually like at Old West Ranch, where residents lived off the grid and as self-sufficiently as possible. This fact was barely, if at all, acknowledged by media outlets that seemed to have difficulty reconciling the ultra-modern prospect of a $1.2 billion project that could power 600,000 homes with an inwardly-focused community interested in sustainability on a very small scale. While on one hand the wildfires spared a project that could begin to significantly shift energy usage in California, they ravaged an example of an older, quieter, less shiny approach to environmentalism. It was almost as if the fire itself declared that there are acceptable, and unacceptable, approaches to sustainable living – one best left in the ashes of the past, the other glimmering in the future.
Of course, the tradeoffs aren't that simple. Wind power might significantly serve the energy needs of California and the West and it may do so without as significant an impact on the environment as fossil fuel based power sources. Still, should we so urgently embrace wind power without fully studying how turbines impact neighboring populations and the landscape?
By Thursday, July 29, I had my first chance to ponder the question. That day I joined the Portland, OR-based Dill Pickle Club on its “Where does our energy come from” tour of the Columbia River Gorge. As described in the Portland Mercury by freelancer Rebecca Robinson, the tour visited The Dalles Dam before a lunch with Chief Wilbur Slockish of the Klickitat Tribe of the Yakama Nation. After railing on damages wrought on his people and their land near the site where the Celilo Falls once cascaded, Slockish ended his talk emphasizing his support for wind power and, specifically, his cooperation with SDS Land Company's construction of a wind farm in Washington.
Chief Wilbur Slockish of the Klickitat Tribe of the Yakama Nation speaks in front of the Columbia River. Photo by Bill Lascher.
After Slockish's talk, we continued on to PGE's Biglow Wind Farm, which currently has 141 turbines installed and another 76 planned. There was nothing subtle about Biglow, which sits among a landscape of golden wheatfields a few miles inland from the decaying town of Rufus, OR. The turbines tower 400 feet into the air, gleaming like props from a big-budget science fiction movie.
Like all power plants, wind farms don't always make for the best neighbors. Some are trying to fight that perception problem. As the New York Times's William Yardley reported July 31, New York-based Caithness Energy is paying $5,000 to neighbors of a wind farm in Ione, OR who agree not to complain about noise from Caithness' turbines. An Oregon Department of Environmental Quality spokesman quoted in the story told Yardly his department wasn't monitoring noise regulations and that he wasn't “sure who you'd call out there in the Columbia Gorge” anyhow. If public officials don't even know who's responsible for evaluating a power plant's impact on neighboring populations, can the industry itself be expected to?
Large turbines require large transmission lines at the Biglow Wind Farm in Oregon. Photo by Bill Lascher.
Of course, we're still talking about power plants that will require major transmission lines. That returns my attention to the Old West Ranch. In a sense, by practicing self-sufficiency, the Old West residents were implementing a very small scale version of power by distributed generation. As Peter Newman notes, distributed generation increases control over power production and improves resiliency in times of disaster. Power generation and transmission on a neighborhood scale coupled with efficiency measures and incentives for everyone within a neighborhood -- including residents -- to participate, would ensure less dependence upon large scale industrial power generation from any source.
Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy.
He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.