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Birds and Blades: Are Condors and Wind Turbines Compatible?

Lawsuits pit an endangered species against renewable energy development

USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

This California condor, flying near the coast, is one of about 200 condors living in the wild.

Wind is a growing industry in the Tehachapi Mountains in Southern California. Kern County welcomes new wind projects, and Google has gotten in on the action. But some environmentalists say that developers and officials are ignoring the elephant — or, in this case, the enormous bird — in the room.

California condors are beginning to return to the Tehachapis after nearly going extinct in the 1980′s, and birds and wind turbines don’t mix. No California condors have yet had a run-in with a turbine. But they are still endangered — it’s illegal to kill them — and three environmental groups say that Kern County and the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are not properly considering the risks. The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the BLM today, regarding one wind development in particular. (They have previously sued Kern County over the same project).

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Golden Gate National Recreation Area Gets Wind Turbines Spinning

The National Park Service is expanding its renewable energy efforts

By Thibault Worth

Alison Taggart-Barone/National Park Service

Frank Dean, General Superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, speaks in front of one of the new wind turbines at Crissy Field.

The Crissy Field Center, an environmental education center operated by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the Park Service and the Presidio Trust, erected three out of an eventual five wind turbines Wednesday. The event highlighted the expanding mission of the National Park Service to use more renewable energy in powering park facilities.

While the Center’s turbines will be used for mostly educational purposes, the ceremony took place on the same day that the National Park Service reached an interconnection agreement with Southern California Edison to bring 20 dormant renewable energy projects in California online.

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Clean Energy Target Still Unmet, PG&E Signs More Renewables

Craig Miller

California’s three big utilities have another two years to reach their mandated target of having 20% of their electricity generated from renewable sources, and today PG&E announced two new deals that could inch the company closer to that goal:

  • Wind:  An agreement with NextEra Energy Resources, for 25 years of wind power from the company’s 163 megawatt North Sky River project in Tehachapi, CA.  PG&E says the energy from this project could meet the needs of about 90,000 typical homes.
  • Solar:  A 25-year contract with Sempra Generation for 150 megawatts of solar power from an expansion of the Copper Mountain Solar complex near Boulder City, NV.  Just under 2/3 of that power is expected online in 2013, with the remainder available by 2015. Ultimately, the company says, this project could power 45,000 homes.
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Google Writing More Checks for Renewable Energy

Another major renewable energy project is getting a cash infusion from Google.

Wind turbines clustered on hilltops near Tehachapi. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

This time it’s Terra-Gen’s multi-phase wind project in Kern County, known as the Alta Wind Energy Center.

Google’s clean-tech investment arm will reportedly invest $55 million in the project, being built near Tehachapi.

Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy “czar,” told me in an interview last year that the company would support clean energy technologies with two main attributes; global scalability and the potential to become cost-competitive with coal power. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Weihl said he thought Google’s “culture of innovation” made it a good fit with renewable energy development.

Google has now made substantial investments in wind, solar and geothermal projects, in and around California, as well as bankrolling an ambitious scheme to build a connective spine connecting offshore wind projects along the Atlantic coast.

Of Birds, Bats and Blades

The wind energy industry faces multiple challenges in California.

Flocks of birds near wind turbines in Solano County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

It’s hard to find people who are just flat out against wind energy. As with real estate, attitudes seem to come down to location, location, location. That’s why three of the thorniest issues with wind are project siting, transmission (lines for the power produced), and the industry’s turbulent history with birds and bats. Some of those challenges are highlighted in this slide show, designed to accompany my two-part radio series. Continue reading

CA Doubled Pace of Renewables Last Year

California Regulators say the state’s utilities about doubled the growth of new renewable energy sources last year. The California Public Utilities Commission says developers added 653 megawatts of capacity in 2010, nearly twice the pace of 2009.

Recently erected wind turbines at the Solano County Wind Resource Area. (Photo: Craig Miller)

For all that, utilities did not quite make the state-imposed requirement that they get 20% of their electrical generation from renewables by last year. That requirement was affirmed by the legislature. In September of last year, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger moved the goalposts to 33% by 2020. But that mandate is backed by an executive order, not by state law. Continue reading

California Leads Clean Energy Derby

Wind turbines in Solano County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

A new ranking of clean energy development in the US has California well out in front, with Oregon running a distant second.

Clean Edge, which describes itself as “the world’s first research and advisory firm devoted to the clean-tech sector,” has released its “first annual U.S. Clean Energy Leadership Index.” Massachusetts, Washington, and Colorado round out the top five. The firm, which has offices in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, says it used 80 indicators and 4,000 individual data points to calculate the rankings, including numbers of alternative-fuel vehicles and the flow of clean-tech venture capital, as well as the states’ portion of electricity generated from carbon-free sources.

As Todd Woody points out in his post for Reuters, the rankings may furrow brows in a couple of Midwestern states that have been showing some leadership in specific areas. Iowa, for example, is ahead of California in the wind energy race.

Also this week, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources said it had reached a settlement with regulators and environmental groups to replace more than 2,000 older wind turbines in California’s Altamont Pass, to reduce the number of bird fatalities. The new turbines, while much larger, spin at slower speeds and provide fewer places for birds to nest.

Offshore Wind’s Google Boost

Google makes a billion-dollar bet on offshore wind–but not on this coast.

When Google announced that it was taking a nearly 40% stake in a $5 billion underwater transmission line to serve offshore wind farms that haven’t been built, nobody even seemed to flinch. Such is the effect of having the Google imprimatur on renewable energy projects.

The Nysted wind farm, off the coast of Denmark. The US presently has no offshore wind generation.

According to reports, the cable would run for 350 miles, about 20 miles off the Atlantic coast, connecting yet-to-be-built wind energy turbines to the mainland and to each other. It would not connect the only offshore wind farm to so far win approval from the federal Department of the Interior, the long-contested Cape Wind project off Massachusetts. Continue reading

Wind Picks Up Nationally, California Lags

A cluster of wind turbines in Tehachapi Pass marks California's early commitment to wind energy. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Wind power generators added nearly 40% to their total capacity in the US last year, as several states blew past California, according to a new report from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. According to the tally, four states now generate more than 10% of their total electricity (excluding exports) from wind.

Texas is the undisputed leader in the wind race, installing nearly 2,300 megawatts of capacity last year alone. Other Midwestern states such as Indiana, Iowa, the Dakotas and Minnesota have also been aggressive installers of wind farms. Continue reading

Energy Storage: The Holy Grail

A 2 MW battery at the AES Huntington Beach power plant. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

Energy storage is something we’ve come to take for granted in everyday life. Our cell phones, iPods, cars and computers all depend on batteries. But storing large amounts of energy for the electric grid is another matter entirely. It’s a technical challenge that has yet to be met–but will need to be for the coming age of renewable energy.

California’s grid is designed to deliver electricity on a real-time basis. Every four seconds, the grid operators at the California Independent System Operator (ISO) have to ensure that the energy supply meets the demand in the state, something that’s known as “balancing” the grid (you can see today’s electricity forecast on the ISO site). As a result, they coordinate the one piece of the system that they have control over: the power plants. Continue reading