Oakland Tribune – July 17, 2006
BIRDS LANDING — It’s a pastoral scene.
Fields of golden grass and scrub brush wave in a gentle breeze. A jackrabbit crosses a country road. Ladybugs float by in the sun. A windmill turns overhead.
The difference? This windmill is a 415-foot next-generation wind turbine with three 130-foot blades, and it can generate up to three megawatts of electricity when the wind speed reaches 30 mph. That’s enough energy to power at least 2,200 Bay Area homes over the course of a year.
Eight of these new wind turbines tower over a Montezuma Hills pasture near the Sacramento River in Solano County. Built by the Danish firm Vestas and owned by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, these are now the tallest land-based wind turbines in North America.
But they are not just bigger than their diminutive predecessors. They are smarter.
Sensors measure the wind, waiting until it consistently blows in the same direction before automatically adjusting the angle of the turbine’s blades. The ladders that technicians climb inside the tubular support tower of each turbine are not bolted to the wall — that would weaken the structure of the steel. Instead, they’re held up by high-powered magnets.
“Wind is renewable, and the fuel is free,” said Dick Wallace, senior project manager for the Sacramento utility’s wind operations in the Montezuma Hills. Natural gas, oil and coal power plants are at the mercy of the price of the fuel that keeps their generators running. The operators of wind turbines pay for the initial installation of the equipment, as well as maintenance and operating costs, but they never need to buy any more wind.
The municipal utility paid Vestas $30 million for the installation of the eight new turbines. That price includes upgrades to the area’s transmission cabling and infrastructure that will also serve the next phase of the project — 21 more three-megawatt turbines, planned to be installed by May 2008.
Denmark leads the world in wind power production and consumption, with 20 percent of its power already generated by wind. While offshore wind farms help to increase Denmark’s totals, the United States has seen efforts to build turbines at sea delayed in places like Cape Cod, Mass., due to political jockeying and navigational concerns.
Mike Reagan, a member of the Solano County Board of Supervisors, placed the number of wind turbines already operational in the Montezuma Hills area at about 7,000.
“There’s about 43,000 acres we have set aside in that one wind resource area,” Reagan said. About half of that area is already dotted with turbines, he said, and another quarter of the land has been slated for wind projects still in the planning stages.
Case van Dam, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at University of California, Davis, toured the site of the new turbines with a group of students while technicians were assembling the turbines in May.
“It’s probably one of the nicest wind resource areas in the country right now,” he said.
Van Dam, who also serves as the director of the California Wind Energy Collaborative, said each of the new machines has the potential to generate as much energy as 30 of the 100-kilowatt turbines common at older wind farms like those at Altamont Pass, near Interstate 580 between Livermore and Tracy.
“That’s what we like to see,” said John Geesman, a member of the California Energy Commission, the state’s energy policy and planning agency. Geesman said a large number of the wind turbines installed in the 1980s are “almost museum quality equipment” given the technology available today.
“The state would very much like to see primary wind sites repowered with larger, more effective, newer machines,” he said.
Geesman said upgrading their turbines could help utilities reach the renewable energy production goals set by the commission. The Renewable Portfolio Standard Program calls for 20 percent of all the electricity produced in the state to come from renewable resources by 2010.
Alameda Power & Telecom is in the third year of a 24-year contract to buy wind-generated power produced by Florida Power & Light’s turbines in the Montezuma Hills area.
“We have a very high percentage of renewables and clean power in our power portfolio,” said Matt McCabe, a spokesman for the municipal utility in the island city of Alameda.
It is hard to argue against the benefits of wind-generated power as a clean energy source, but environmental groups have pointed out the damaging effects wind turbines can have on bird populations.
The Altamont Pass, home to the largest concentration of wind turbines on the planet, has been especially deadly for golden eagles and red-tailed hawks. While hunting, the birds tend to fly into the rapidly rotating blades of the smaller, older turbines in the area.
A 2004 California Energy Commission study estimated that between 881 and 1300 predatory birds are killed there every year. The study attributed some of the area’s problems to the construction of turbines near the large populations of squirrels and rabbits that predatory birds prey upon.
Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the new, taller turbines at Montezuma Hills might prove less threatening to raptors.
“The blades are much higher off the ground,” he said. “Presumably, that’s going to reduce the risk for birds.”
Miller said his organization has suggested that Solano County wind turbine operators set up a joint mitigation fund. Operators would pay into the fund based on how many birds are killed by their turbines. “That money would go into preserving habitat for those species,” he said.
As it stands now, turbine operators in Solano County contribute to their own individual mitigation funds. The Sacramento district responsible for the new turbines uses a fund based on an environmental impact report on the site that dates back 20 years.
Along with the wild rabbits that skip past the white steel towers of the new turbines, cattle and sheep find their way to the fields surrounding the giant windmills, thanks to agreements with the local community.
“The farmers love it,” Mike Reagan said. “The wind turbines don’t really take up that much of their land, and it brings in all-weather roads on their land that they couldn’t put in otherwise.”
Reagan said there has even been some interest in opening up the Montezuma Hills area to tourists interested in wind turbines. “It’s attracting quite a bit of attention internationally,” he said. “We’re starting to get some interest.” He said the county and the California State Railroad Museum were discussing the idea with turbine operators.