The proposal was for two thin towers, 197 feet tall and 10 inches in diameter at their base, on two remote west Marin ridgelines, a mile and a half apart and northeast of Dillon Beach. With meteorological testing gear, digital transmitters and a small solar panel mounted to each tower, the temporary installations were sought by NextEra Energy Resources to gather data about the potential of the region for wind area production.
Permits for the three-year test project were routinely issued by the Marin County Deputy Zoning Administrator on Aug. 26. And a gale of protest promptly erupted.
A group of nine people, including leaders of the Marin Audubon Society, the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin and the Marin Conservation League, quickly appealed to the Marin County Planning Commission to rescind the permits. They charge that the project is in violation of state environmental law and would endanger birds and bats, create a visual blight on the landscape, pose a hazard to rescue helicopters, interfere with radar from the Two Rock Coast Guard station and expose neighboring residents to "wind turbine syndrome."
Outside of the county's standard review process, the wind turbine detractors emphasize two other arguments: that the companies seeking to build them are pocketing huge wads of taxpayer money and then building installations that fail to deliver on promises of "green energy." NextEra, the company seeking the temporary test project in Marin, is a Florida-based, multibillion dollar corporation that operates dozens of wind farms across North America, including Altamont Pass.
"The wind-farm business is an immense folly inflicted on a gullible public by big business, with the collusion of big government, at enormous expense to the environment, with shockingly little energy benefit," fumed project opponent Christopher Barnes in a guest column published last month in the West Marin Citizen.
"The wind-energy companies are thriving because of a new stimulus that's been created to provide on the order of $800 million for energy production," elaborates Chips Armstrong, owner of a Petaluma auto repair shop and one of the nine Marin appellants.
"They're getting several times the subsidies that anything else is getting—oil, coal, natural gas, geothermal and other forms of energy. Yet they are producing, in California, 1.3 percent of the power demand. And these companies are making hundreds of millions of dollars."
"The whole notion that this is somehow a boondoggle, that this is subsidized by government, is absurd," counters Dave Erikson. As a Sebastopol-based "low-carbon energy consultant" and former staff member at the Climate Protection Campaign, Erickson points out that under California's green energy law, utilities are actually required "to buy more renewals, and it has to be at a certain price point. Unless they can build that so that their costs are lower than what they can get on the market, they're not going to do it.
"It all has to do," he continues, "with electricity being a fungible commodity in California."
Erickson theorizes that the Marin Energy Authority might be an eager customer for wind power generated locally within the county. But Armstrong is not persuaded, and further contends that wind power is not green. "A lot of the big turbines actually start with electricity," he says. "So you have a carbon footprint that's created by putting 'em in. Then you have a carbon footprint that's created by the equipment that has to be there to back 'em up when they don't work. So if you do the math, as a lot of people have, there's no real savings from the standpoint of a carbon footprint. In fact, it almost could be negative.
"To say nothing of the fact that there's no net power created, relative to anything else," Armstrong continues. "All 13,000 wind turbines in the state of California can be matched with one 550 megawatt gas generator."
"This is extreme nonsense," retorts Dave Erickson. "The bottom line with wind is there's no fuel. The fuel is free."
"Wind is a commercially viable source of renewable energy," adds Barry Vesser, deputy director of the Climate Protection Campaign. "It's being deployed all over the world, including many places in the United States, at scale. The vulnerability of wind is its intermittency, but there are ways to deal with that," Vesser says, citing storage and supplementing with other power sources.
There are also encouraging developments for the birds, who have been injured and killed by older turbines. A recent legal settlement will require NextEra to replace 2,400 turbines in Altamont Pass "with newer models that are more efficient, generate more power, and are less harmful to eagles, falcons and other birds," according to then&–attorney general Jerry Brown.
David Williard, cofounder of Sage Renewables in Inverness, sees the early site of Altamont as the source of much of wind power's bad reputation. "They didn't really know what they were doing when they developed Altamont, but we learned a heck of a lot from the mistakes that they made up there. We just don't see the issues with bird kills like they did in the '80s. But the public perception is that these are just big bird-killing machines, which they're really not."
Back in San Rafael, the nine opponents' appeal was upheld, 5-2 by the Marin Planning Commission, only to be reversed again in mid-December on a 4-0 vote by county supervisors. Bird mortality will be monitored while the towers are in place.
And it may all be moot.
"I seriously have some reservations about whether or not they're going to find the wind that they need" to proceed with a large-scale wind farm, observes Williard. "I doubt that they will."