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Know the West

Birds get a break from blades


This winter, the whirling blades of half of the more than 5,000 windmills perched atop Altamont Pass will grind to a halt for two months. That plan will allow migrating birds to fly safely through the area.

Under new county permitting rules, the windmill companies, which supply power for 120,000 homes, will halt their turbines during the winter, when winds blow softly and state power needs are lowest. The goal is to halve the number of birds of prey killed by Altamont’s turbines each year, now estimated at 881 to 1,300 (HCN, 5/2/05: Blades, birds and bats: Wind energy and wildlife not a cut-and-dried issue). The companies will also replace aging windmills with fewer, more efficient and bird-friendlier turbines over the next 13 years.
Tristan Grimbert, president of enXco, an Altamont energy producer, says his company will spend as much as $120 million to upgrade its windmills. But he cautions that the industry may have to shut down if forced to make more concessions. "Then you have to replace those megawatts with coal or oil," he says. "That would be as detrimental to the birds."

Jeff Miller, coordinator for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, says his organization is satisfied with the recent decision by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, though it favored a state attorney general’s plan calling for stronger penalties and swifter action. The Center still has a lawsuit open against enXco and other Altamont companies, seeking new nesting habitat as compensation for years of windmill-killed birds. Final approval of the county rules, with additional conditions to further protect birds, is expected this September.