By Steve Ferry, Project Leader
The Strauss Wind Energy Project is a wind farm slated to be built on 3,000 acres of range land about four miles south of the city of Lompoc. The project will comprise 29 wind turbine generators (WTGs), most about 500 feet tall, near the end of San Miguelito Road. Strauss will be built by a German company called BayWa on the same site where a previous project, the Lompoc Wind Energy Project, was proposed about 12 years ago.
The Strauss site has an exceptional bird diversity, particularly raptors. In fact, the site has one of the highest raptor concentrations in Santa Barbara County. Red-tailed hawks are abundant and Golden eagles are seen nearly every day. Other raptors seen regularly include White-tailed Kites, Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons, American Kestrels, and Ferruginous Hawks. Strauss presents a significant risk of harm to these raptors – 60% of raptors observed in surveys were within the rotor-swept zone of the WTGs.
While Audubon supports renewable energy production, wind energy that is not properly planned, sited, and operated can have a devastating effect on birds. After carefully reviewing the Strauss project design and environmental impact documents, we determined that Strauss was not designed with the proper balance between energy production and environmental protection, particularly protection for birds. As a result, we could not support the project.
Santa Barbara Audubon, with help from National Audubon and La Purisima Audubon, put in a tremendous effort advocating for birds on both the Strauss and Lompoc projects. On Strauss, the Audubon team worked diligently for a year and a half researching the effects of wind farms on birds, analyzing Environmental Impact Reports, writing long and very detailed letters on the project scoping and the draft and final EIRs, and testifying at several County hearings. In addition, we worked to influence the County planning staff, the County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, agencies including the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the developer.
I was the Audubon team leader and helped write much of our correspondence along with huge efforts by Ken Pearlman and our attorney, Ana Citrin, of the Law Office of Marc Chytilo. Other core team members who made significant contributions included Lori Gaskin, Jessie Altstatt, and Mark Holmgren. In addition, we had a lot of help from Dolores Pollock, Darlene Chirman, John Callender, Adrian O’Loghlen, Mike and Tam Taaffe of La Purisima Audubon, and Garry George, Clean Energy Director for National Audubon. In addition, we mobilized SBAS members, many of whom wrote letters and testified at the County Planning Commission hearing.
One of the primary goals of our advocacy was to have the site designed to minimize the impact on birds. From the beginning, at the scoping stage of the project, we urged the developer and the County to implement the latest science used on other wind farms to place the WTGs in ways that minimize bird deaths, particularly raptors. We met with BayWa, who told us that they would place the WTGs only where they would generate the most electrical power. Later, BayWa claimed that they had considered bird mortality in the placement of the WTGs. The evidence proves otherwise – BayWa’s report on their surveys of raptor use of the site was not even issued until September 2019, more than a year after they had established their WTG layout!
In the end, the County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors were highly motivated to approve renewable energy, despite significant negative environmental impacts. The County is way behind in achieving the renewable energy goals that it set for itself in order to fulfill its commitment to the State of California’s goal of producing 100% renewable energy by 2045. Because of this strong incentive, the commissioners and supervisors approved the Strauss project despite Class I impacts to birds and bats due to predicted collisions with the WTGs, the destruction of 225 mature oak trees, and impacts to visual resources – the huge WTGs will be visible from several public areas. In addition, the project will destroy 20% of the world population of the endangered Gaviota Tarplant. These impacts are a real shame, because the project could have been configured with far less impact to birds and tarplant if it had been properly designed up-front to do a true tradeoff between energy production and environmental damage.
While we did not achieve all of our goals, we were successful in getting many protections for birds on the project. In fact, the County Planner stated to Audubon immediately after the Planning Commission hearing on November 20, “You shaped the project”. In addition, Garry George of National Audubon said that we got some of the strictest provisions he’s ever seen on a wind farm in the US. Some of the bird protections that SBAS advocated for and got on the project include:
- Active control technology, like a system called IdentiFlight, that will detect large birds such as Golden Eagles and California Condors approaching the wind farm and automatically curtail WTG operation.
- The wind farm operator must obtain a Golden Eagle “take” permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service prior to beginning operation. This will subject the project to more scrutiny by the USFWS, including requiring a collision risk analysis.
- An Adaptive Management Plan will be implemented if bird or bat mortalities trigger specified thresholds (1 fatality per 12 month period for listed and fully protected species, 2 fatalities per 12 month period for other sensitive species, 3 fatalities per 12 month period for raptors without designated conservation status, and 4 fatalities per WTG/year for non-sensitive species).
- If certain collision mortalities exceed what is called a Level 2 threshold, a report to County Planning Commission will be required, and there will be a public hearing with public comment. This significantly increases the transparency on bird mortality from the project.
- Acknowledgment that the California Condor may be affected by this wind farm and mitigation measures to specifically protect the condor.
- Transmission line wires spaced to prevent electrocution of the California Condor.
- Markers on transmission lines to make them more visible to birds.
- Meteorological towers associated with the project will not have guy wires in order to reduce bird collisions.
- Carrion to be removed from within 500 feet of each WTG to reduce the attraction of carrion to scavenging birds like Golden Eagles. If specified bird mortality thresholds are exceeded, the frequency of carrion removal will be increased. Carcasses of all animals, not just livestock, will be removed.
- San Miguelito Road will be left open to the public for recreation, including birding, during the operational phase of the project.
As a consequence of SBAS’s diligent efforts on Strauss, developers and the County now know that they must consider bird conservation more seriously in future development projects. SBAS will continue our strong science-based conservation actions to protect regional avifauna in our unique central California area. We are grateful for the ongoing support of our members in these conservation efforts.