Wind energy has come of age as a commercial technology for generating electricity. Wind development is booming. Worldwide sales of wind turbines now exceed $1 billion annually and sales of wind-generated electricity are not far behind. After surviving a stormy adolescence in California, the technology has reached maturity on the plains of northern Europe and southern India.
Now that the technology is vibrant and growing rapidly, it’s an appropriate time for the California wind industry to grow up, and, like all adults, assume responsibility for its actions. It’s time to clean up the environmental mess left in California by a decade of haphazard wind development. It’s time to clean up the mess in the Tehachapi Pass.
Many Californians are justifiably proud of what the wind industry has accomplished in the state’s windy passes. At the same time many feel somewhat uneasy, rightfully suspecting that California’s wind development could have been done better. Some Californians are downright ashamed of seeing their bright dream of solar energy tarnished by the irresponsible actions of an inconsiderate few, especially if they’ve seen well-designed and well-maintained wind power plants in other countries.
California’s wind industry consumes a public resource, the visual amenity. The industry is obligated to use this resource with care. Unfortunately, some California wind plants are fast approaching the status of “junkyards of the air,” where executives exhibit a callous disregard for the land, the landscape, and the people who value it.
The excesses found in California–the huge gullies gouged into Tehachapi’s hillsides, the derelict turbines, the oil pouring down the towers, the glaring road cuts in erodible soils, the piles of industrial detritus, the massive jumble of machines scattered willy-nilly across the landscape–will all come back to haunt the wind industry in the years to come unless it learns to clean up after itself.
The tragedy is that the aesthetic impact of poor design and even poorer management, evident on some California wind farms, is completely unnecessary. It need not be this way and is not this way in most other countries. No one in Britain, Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands would long tolerate such a mess from their own wind companies. We shouldn’t either.
The wind industry should reflect on how far it has come since the first turbines were installed in the early 1980s and where it wants to be in the years ahead. California-style wind development will not be accepted on a large scale by the public, and certainly not by the environmental community, if it entails the aesthetic costs seen in the Altamont, Tehachapi, and San Gorgonio passes.
The future of wind energy in California and in Kern County lies in its ability to deliver on its green promise. The wind industry is shooting itself in the foot by ignoring long-festering environmental issues. California’s massive arrays were once a model for the world. But that was long ago and many of California’s wind projects have now become an embarrassment to both the international wind community and wind energy’s environmental supporters. While there are a few wind companies, such as SeaWest, that have done commendable jobs of site development, the rest of the California industry has failed to follow their lead. Some have abused the public’s trust and the trust of their employees, and littered the landscape with their broken machines.
Instead of confronting the dilemma forthrightly, the California wind industry has circled the wagons, first denying that a problem exists then attempting to delay corrective action as long as possible. They claim that these issues are a “decade old” and shouldn’t concern them as they frantically try to survive utility restructuring. Indeed, that is part of the problem. These issues are a decade old. It’s time the industry grew up, became accountable for its actions, and dealt with these problems in a responsible manner.
Cleaning up the mess in California poses a challenge to the wind industry, a challenge that so far has not been accepted by the American Wind Energy Association, the Kern Wind Energy Association, or their members. Instead of implementing aggressive measures to control accelerated erosion in the Tehachapi Pass, for example, the associations have opted for endless meetings and soothing reassurances that they will do something “soon”. Let’s hope that “soon” is before this winter’s expected severe storms and the severe erosion that will result if no action is taken.
As the California wind industry races toward the millennium, it faces a chasm. It can either build a soaring bridge to the future with environmentally sensitive projects, or it can continue building a rickety 19th-century trestle by ignoring the mess it leaves behind on California’s scenic hillsides.
It’s time for the California wind industry to regain the trust of the state’s citizens by redressing the unnecessary environmental impacts from its aging projects. It’s time to clean up the mess in California.
Paul Gipe of Bakersfield has worked with Kern County wind energy interests since 1984 and is on the board of the American Wind Energy Association.
He is temporarily living in the far northwest corner of Denmark, where he is completing a senior research fellowship with the Folkecenter for Vedvarende Energi (Folkecenter for Renewable Energy). He is studying the integration of wind turbines with the landscape and the local communities of the region.
The region surrounding the Folkecenter has one of the world’s largest per capita concentrations of wind turbines. It is second only to the Tehachapi Pass. But unlike the wind turbines in Tehachapi, which are operated by only a few wind power companies, those in Denmark are owned by individual farmers or by cooperatives of local residents.
The wind turbines in Denmark are also distributed sporadically across the landscape and not concentrated in giant wind farms.
While attending the Folkecenter, Gipe will be presenting lectures on the aesthetic integration of wind turbines with the landscape to invited members of the Danish parliament (Folketing) and, in a separate program, to Danish engineers. This is a lecture he has given to groups in the United States, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia. These lectures followed the 1995 publication of his book “Wind Energy Comes of Age” which emphasized the environmental aspects of wind development.
An edited version of this editorial appeared in the Sunday, September 28 1997 issue of the Bakersfield Californian.