The original wind farms built in Altamont Pass, California in the early 1980s were among the first large-scale wind projects in the world. They transformed the dream of producing clean, utility-scale power from wind into reality. At the time, little was known about the interactions between wind and wildlife. Though wind energy offered great environmental benefits, the unexpected wind-wildlife impacts at Altamont raised serious concerns and caused conflict between wind developers and environmentalists. Yet this ultimately provided the catalyst for intense learning and collaboration, and today Altamont exemplifies what can be achieved when stakeholders who care about building wind farms and conserving wildlife come together to find solutions.
New Technology Encounters an Unexpected Challenge
In the early 1980s, improvements in wind turbine technology, strong power prices, incentives for renewable energy, and proximity to a major load center made Altamont Pass an attractive location to develop wind farms. Ultimately, some 6,200 wind turbines representing 583 megawatts of clean, renewable energy capacity were installed, an impressive achievement at the time. In these early days for the industry, there was little research available on wind-wildlife interactions. Altamont Pass is one of the top raptor habitats in the country, and after the wind farms were constructed, observers began to notice raptor fatalities in the vicinity of the turbines. Environmentalists and wind energy advocates alike were surprised by this unanticipated and unintended consequence, and after much hard work they found solutions that both groups supported.
Working Together to Find Solutions
This issue came to a head in the early 2000s, explained Dr. James Walker, Senior Advisor to EDF Renewables and former CEO of its predecessor company, enXco, Inc. “The wind projects needed to renew their operating permits, but the environmentalists were prepared to oppose these extensions unless something was done to reduce the impacts to raptors.”
This caused key stakeholders to sit down and work to find a solution. The wind companies wanted to keep operating their projects. The local utility, PG&E, wanted to keep getting the power, which peaked in production on hot August afternoons when electricity demand was high. Environmental groups like local chapters of the Audubon Society wanted to do whatever was necessary to significantly reduce raptor fatalities, even if that meant stopping many of the wind turbines from operating.
The parties began a negotiation process that lasted more than two years. “In the beginning, neither side trusted each other,” recalled Dr. Walker. “They didn’t believe our explanations of the economics of running a wind farm, and we thought they were asking for unrealistic reductions in raptor fatalities.”
“Altamont was a hard lesson for everyone,” said Garry George, Director of Renewable Energy for Audubon California, “It took litigation and settlement to bring the wind industry, NGOs, scientists and state agencies together to agree on measures to reduce the unacceptable level of mortality of raptors, including golden eagles, at the old turbines in the Altamont Pass.”
The two sides worked together to cultivate greater understanding. The wind companies used a model of a generic wind farm to show that stopping too many of the turbines would cause excessive financial losses, and research projects were launched to understand how birds were interacting with the wind turbines. Scientists looked at the natural perching, flying, and hunting behavior of different species, and sought to identify relationships between these behaviors and things like landscape attributes, turbine design, wind farm layout, and operations to understand the specific causes of avian mortality.
Based on these ongoing discussions and the results of the scientific studies, stakeholders agreed on a set of solutions. In the short term, the wind energy companies agreed to shut down the turbines during the winter migration (November – February), and to permanently decommission the highest risk turbines, which were about 15% of the total.
The long-term solution for Altamont has been to repower the site by replacing the original small turbines with modern turbines that are much taller, which have been found to be safer for raptors.1 In addition, wind energy companies have contributed to raptor habitat restoration efforts.
AWWI Creates a Space for Open Communications
“One of the main lessons I learned from this experience is that if sincere people with differing views really take the time to talk to one another, you can find common ground,” says Dr. Walker. “Communication is key. The more you talk, the more information you exchange, and the better you can understand one another’s point of view.”
“That is what is so special about AWWI,” he continued. “AWWI institutionalizes that kind of open communication. All parties – wind developers, conservationists, scientists, and government agencies – need to work together to find cost-effective solutions. AWWI creates the space for those conversations, and builds trust among stakeholders.”
“A good outcome of Altamont is that it totally supported the need for a broader collaboration between the wind industry, NGOs and scientists to understand and provide good research and independent science in order to take solid steps to avoid, minimize, and provide effective mitigation for the impacts of wind turbines on birds and the places birds need,” said Garry George. “Altamont motivated AWWI founders, including Audubon and EDF Renewables, to collaborate on wind-wildlife issues and form AWWI.”
Wind and Wildlife Soar to New Heights Together
The wind farms at Altamont Pass were exceptional because they were some of the first to make large-scale wind power a reality. They were also exceptional in terms of their impact on raptors. When combined with first generation wind technology and a lack of understanding of how to design wind farms to minimize wildlife impacts, the geography, wind profile, and wildlife activity in the area created unintended consequences.
“While what happened at Altamont is unfortunate and very unusual, it served as a catalyst that brought scientists and interested stakeholders together to find a solution,” explained Dr. Taber Allison, Director of Research at AWWI. “Everyone was determined to prevent this kind of detrimental wind-wildlife interaction from occurring at future projects, and these collaborative efforts, which focused on investments in science, ultimately led to the creation of AWWI.”
The wind farms at Altamont Pass were the first step down a path to a promising new way to power the country without creating air pollution or using scarce water resources. Since those early days, wind power has expanded to hundreds of projects in more than 40 states across the U.S.
The lessons learned at Altamont have fostered a constructive partnership between the wind and wildlife communities. The collaborative research that began in the 1990s continues today, supported by wind energy companies in conjunction with wildlife advocates, researchers, and government agencies. The resulting advances in scientific knowledge have spurred innovations in wind energy technology, the siting of wind farms as well as of individual turbines, and in operations, and have benefitted conservation efforts across the country.
AWWI is dedicated to bringing wind and wildlife stakeholders together to find science-based, sustainable solutions that enable wind and wildlife to coexist and thrive.
1 Modern turbines are significantly taller than the first-generation turbines installed in the 1980s. The additional height means that the lowest point their blade tips reach is about 90 feet above the ground. In contrast, the blade tips of older turbines had a low point of just 50 feet above the ground.