The wind turbines in the Altamont Pass east of the San Francisco Bay Area, installed in the 1970s and ’80s, might be seen as a symbol of California’s early leadership in renewable energy. But for some bird lovers, the first-of-its-kind operation has long been little more than a killing field. That contrasting view has led to an extended bureaucratic and legal battle, one that appears finally to be drawing to a close.

Environmental groups, the state and NextEra Energy Resources, the largest wind turbine operator at the site, have reached an agreement that requires NextEra to upgrade all its older turbines to newer models that kill far fewer birds. In all, NextEra will replace some 2,400 turbines, with all its existing turbines off line no later than 2015. The deal was announced in a press release by California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is also the governor-elect.

Altamont Pass wind turbines
image via Wikimedia Commons

Because newer-model turbines are more efficient, the company will be able to generate the same amount of energy at Altamont – around 240 megawatts – using far fewer turbines. The company has also agreed to place the new turbines in “environmentally friendly locations.”

According to the state, a 2004 study “found that the 5,400 older turbines operating at Altamont Pass killed an estimated 1,766 to 4,271 birds annually, including between 881 and 1330 raptors such as golden eagles –  which are protected under federal law – hawks, falcons and owls.”

The Golden Gate Audubon Society said in a press release that the announced deal could result in an 80 percent reduction in “impacts to birds.”

In addition to replacing its turbines, the agreement requires NextEra to pay $2.5 million, split between the state Energy Commission’s Public Integrated Energy Research Program and the East Bay Regional Park District and the Livermore Area Regional Park District for raptor habitat creation.

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