Notorious Altamont Wind Area Becomes Safer For Birds

Not that it much matters, since we now know that cats are the real killers that must be stopped, but there’s good news in the long-running controversy about wind power and birds. A study of the notorious wind turbines in California’s Altamont Pass suggests that efforts to reduce the number of bird deaths from the spinning blades are succeeding.

Shutting down turbines in the winter months, removing particularly poorly sited turbines and replacing hundreds of smaller, older turbines with fewer newer, larger turbines are all cited in what researchers say has been a decline of around 50 percent in fatalities to four focal species – the American kestrel, burrowing owl, golden eagle and red-tailed hawk – since the middle of the last decade.

Turbines in the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Turbines in the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area (image via Wikimedia Commons)

This study – reported on first by the San Francisco Chronicle – was completed late last year for the Alameda County Community Development Agency by ICF International, which has served as the officially monitoring team for the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area since 2008.

Altamont was one of the first extensive wind power developments in the world, with thousands of what are by today’s standards small turbines erected beginning in the 1960s. From April to September especially, it’s a remarkable wind resource, with cool marine air from the Bay Area pulled furiously into the hot Central Valley. Raptors in particular love those winds, and when the turbines went up, it wasn’t a good mix.

Lawsuits have since brought settlements promising change, and while birds continue to die at Altamont, the new study indicates they do so in far fewer numbers than they did seven or eight years ago – in the neighborhood of the 50 percent reduction one of the settlements had sought by 2009.

The study used 1,130 as the baseline 2004 figure for the four focal species, and looked at what happened from 2005 to 2010.

“The estimate of the total number of focal species fatalities occurring during the 2010 bird year is 638 birds, a decrease of 44% from the baseline,” the study reported. “Using the 3-year rolling average from the last 3-year period, the reduction is 51%.”

The authors noted that comparing the new numbers to earlier ones is difficult, as sampling and assessment techniques have been far from consistent, and the task of recovering all carcasses over a vast terrain is a big challenge. But this latest study was far more intensive, comprehensive and systematic than any ever done, yielding “the best estimates available of total APWRA-wide avian fatalities ever produced,” the authors said.

The Golden Gate chapter of the Audubon Society, a leader in fighting to make the Altamont wind area safer for birds, called the findings “very good news.” The group said that although much work remained to be done at Altamont – particularly by NextEra Energy Resources, the largest wind turbine owner at the site – the results so far showed that “with careful siting and design, it’s possible to significantly reduce the risk to birds from wind turbines.”

See the Golden Gate Audubon blog for a great discussion of how the group worked to force changes at Altamont and how repowering and thoughtful siting can make wind turbines less dangerous for birds.

The ICF study, a 171-page PDF, is available here.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Jim Wiegand

    All of this information about Altamont is bogus. The bigger turbine are not safers. I believe an article is coming out soon to expose all of this.

  • Jim Wiegand

    For an in-depth look at the very darkest side to wind energy, everyone should read either one of these articles, “Hiding the slaughter” or “Big Wind & Avian Mortality” (Parts I and II: Hiding the Problem). Readers will have a better understanding of industry’s avian genocide and by supporting wind; they are supporting a completely fraudulent empire.

    Altamont is far from being the only deadly wind farm, In fact there are others more deadly to birds and bats. Altamont just happens to be the wind farm with the most scrutiny and even so the studies from this wind farm are seriously flawed..

    As far as I can tell most wind farms do not do any mortality studies and
    report nothing. Look at Texas, it is much larger than California and had a much higher population of golden eagles, yet I can not find one report of a golden eagle wind turbine fatality. Texas also has many more of the same deadly wind turbines.

    There is a reason for all of this non disclosure. The wind industry regulations in America are voluntary. In other words they are rigged.

    • Thanks for the reading suggestions, Jim! Readers might also be interested in:

      • Jim Wiegand

        For Mr. Barnard his wind interests are totally about money and sucking up to his colleagues. For me it is about saving wildlife from a fraudulent industry.

        I know all about Mike Barnard. He is a city dwelling desk nerd from downtown Toronto sucking off the wind industry food chain. He knows nothing about wildlife, turbine impacts, or has ever conducted one bit of research related to birds. On the other hand he does works for IBM, a company with huge wind industry contracts. Look on their website under wind energy. He also owns stock in GE which is a major wind turbine producer. If that is not enough, many of the GE major stockholders are the same as some of the IBM major stockholders.

        • “A city dwelling desk nerd from downtown Toronto.” Reminds me of the technique Lisa Linowes used in responding to one of my stories!

          • Jim Wiegand

            Your stories are fabrications for some predetermined agenda. I gave you a load of facts but you have dismissed them all. These are your words in how you describe yourself……..”The constant along the way has been a
            fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right”. I know for afact this statement is not true.

          • Jim, please. Dial it down. I haven’t dismissed any facts. That said, your willingness to insult people and to so casually impugn their character and motivations does not give me confidence that you are approaching the challenge of transitioning to a clean energy future with an open mind. I don’t expect you to love EarthTechling’s coverage of the wildlife/wind dilemma, but I do think that compared to most renewable energy sites, we have demonstrated an acknowledgement that there are legitimate issues that need to be addressed. You can see most of our stories here:

          • Jim Wiegand

            I will watch for future stories and I edited the previous comment.

      • Jim Wiegand

        These are your words……..”The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right”. You should correct this story.

  • Jim Wiegand

    My experience with the wind industry is that nothing is as it seems and every statement has to be scrutinized. In addition no one should ever dismiss the fact that taking billions and billions in profits off the taxpayer’s backs, is a clear motive to lie. I recently reviewed another terrible mortality study worked up by the wind
    industry. It was sent to me by a very concerned group of people. For this study
    the actual kill rate was in the range of 500-600 bird and bat deaths per MW per
    year. It could very easily be as high as 750 per year. The study reported about
    6% of this number. I believe details about this disgraceful study including all
    the slimy little tricks that were used to hide mortality will be published soon.
    There are dozens of other studies I would love to get my hands on and analyze
    but I can not find them. Many are from Texas and the central flyway wind farms.

  • Jim Wiegand

    Peter Danko made some very ignorant statements on this site about cats while trying to avert attention from the real killers, wind turbines. I will have to educate a few of his readers. I have decades of wildlife observations in the field and this is the way it is with cats. Cats in remote locations are eaten and killed by the native species. With bobcats, coyotes, Mt lions, and eagles around cats do not have a chance. In all my years with many thousands of hours of wilderness observations in remote locations, I have never seen one feral cat, EVER. But I have seen plenty of these cat killers and cats that wander too far from the safety of communities disappear. So not only can these species easily kill a cat, they can out-compete them with their survival skills.

    The primary bird problem with cats is in their association with people. Even then the feral cats depend on people and communities. This is where they find their food and shelter away from these other species. This is also where they do their damage to birds and it can be significant. But these cats do not primarily eat birds. They will eat mice, rats, large insects, forage at dumps, trash bins, and even steal left over dog food from back yards. They also eat bird species which are strongly associated with people, those being English sparrows, pigeons, and starlings. A feral cat’s diet is in no way a threat or problem with most of the specialized species like shrikes, eagles and hawks, owls, falcons, cranes and so on, which are being slaughter off by turbines.
    There is another factor in all of this besides these other species eating feral cats, they have territories. They may be in the range of 5-10 square miles or even a hundred with a MT lion. By comparison in 5 square mile area around a community you can expect up to several thousand feral cats and house cats.

    So let’s just finish by putting it all into proper perspective, the turbine vs. cat debate. It is all meaningless BS created from behind a desk for the purpose of hiding a terrible mortality problem associated with wind turbines. It is wind turbines that are slaughtering every indigenous bird species birds in their remote locations, not feral cats. Feral cats also eat very few bats, again for all the same reasons.

    So despite the hype by the wind industry, feral cats in remote locations are not slaughtering off eagles, cranes, geese, and every other species that flies. It is the industry’s wind turbines.

  • Readers might also be interested in Mr. Wiegand’s other obsessive and erroneous statements about wind energy, in which he claims, contrary to all evidence and everyone actual expert involved, that wind turbines have killed more whooping cranes than actually exist.

    • Jim Wiegand

      That is your lie and you will someday answer for it. All readers really should look up on the internet and read what I have written and the read your statements. More will be able to see you for exactly what you are. But since you brought it up I will post this for readers. . I do have all the hard data showing that well over 200 whooping cranes (juvenile and adults) have perished from the population since 2006. For the last two years the FWS has stopped giving out accurate counts and they are helping to hide the truth about a rapidly declining endangered species.

      The 2012 and 2013 FWS counts for the declining whooping cranes are a clear cover-up. The several hundred whooping cranes that are missing, disappeared after thousands of wind turbines were installed along their Central Flyway. Their 2013 count should and would have been
      well over 400 at 425-435. Now the FWS has stepped in to keep us guessing by claiming that between 178 and 362 are still alive.

      In a few hours with a pilot and a small plane, I could come up with a
      far more accurate figure then the FWS whooping crane count. The truth is that any competent and honest biologist could do the same. If and when
      this does happen, all the birds counted should be filmed so this whole charade by the industry and FWS can be exposed.

      The FWS with their voluntary regulations has also helped the wind industry hide golden eagle mortality from their turbines in Texas. Texas is much larger than California and had a much higher population of golden eagles, yet I can not find one report of a wind turbine fatality. They
      have the same turbines as in California in fact they have many more. In California wind farms (not just Altamont) have killed thousands of these eagles and in Texas all of this mortality has been hidden.

      These wind turbines that Mr Barnard embraces have also destroyed the historical habitat for the California condor. If it were not for the feeding stations keeping them from the turbines the condor population would now be extinct except for in Zoos.
      This is exactly where the free flying whooping cranes are headed.

      Lastly the FWS service is involved (cover-up) in what happens to be the worst example of mortality study I have ever reviewed. So many birds and
      bats were slaughtered that this mortality study should have shown at least 500-600 fatalities/per MW/ per year. The methodology for the study was so poorly done that there are no other explanations.

  • myview1872

    I wonder if the lower rate of bird kills might be due to the number of birds that have already been slaughtered by the wind turbines. Could it be that the bird population of the area has been reduced by 51%?

    • Jim Wiegand

      It is very possible and at some point the bird and bat populations using this habitat will collapse. There is an undisclosed 50% reduction in nesting golden eagles north/northwest of Altamont. . Clearly this Wind farm is killing far more that what is being reported. For example look at the peregrine falcon fatalities. None were ever reported until this last study came out and they still did not report them all.

  • Jim Wiegand

    For an expert analysis of the hidden mortality taking place at Altamont Pass everybody should read this article…………………………………………………