Audubon Official Calls for Moratorium on Altamont Solar Arrays

Published March 16, 2012

An official with the Audubon Society has called for a five-year moratorium on permitting new solar arrays near the nation’s largest wind farm, at Altamont Pass, California. 

Arrays Worsen Wind Impacts

Rich Cimino, conservation director for the Ohlone Audubon Society, says new solar arrays near Altamont Pass will worsen serious environmental impacts already being imposed by existing wind turbines. Ohlone is an Alameda County community near Altamont Pass that is experiencing firsthand the negative environmental impacts of wind power.

Wind turbines at Altamont Pass kill approximately 5,000 birds each year. Cimino reports raptors in particular are feeling the negative impact of Altamont wind turbines. As a result, Cimino is urging Alameda County to create a raptor refuge in the Altamont area.  

Cimino told a February meeting of the Alameda County Planning Commission local birds face a new threat from a deadly combination of proposed solar power projects and existing wind turbines.

According to Cimino, clearing area lands to erect solar arrays will chase away rodents, a prime food source for an assortment of raptors that frequent the area. Many of the rodents, he predicts, will relocate near the Altamont Pass wind turbines, and will be pursued by hungry birds. Those birds will in turn face higher risks of being chopped up by the spinning blades of wind turbines. Cimino cited the Lodi, California, wind farm as an example where this has already occurred. 

Federal Protection Lacking

Although wind farms are not exempted from the Endangered Species Act and aviary protection laws, the federal government has yet to prosecute or impose any fines on wind power companies for killing protected and endangered birds. Without such federal action, state and local governments offer the only hope for bird protection. 

County officials have yet to decide on the moratorium and the raptor refuge. Greatly complicating their task is California’s renewable energy mandate, which requires 33 percent of the state’s power come from “green” sources by 2020. Adoption of a county-wide five-year moratorium on solar arrays might cut down on bird kills, but it would undercut efforts to comply with the Golden State’s renewable energy mandate.

Subsidies Promoting Bird Kills

Analysts note the irony of federal subsidies to the wind and solar power industries coming at environmental as well as economic costs. In the wake of several recent scandals regarding handouts to the wind and solar industries, however, those subsidies may be in danger. Congress is likely to allow wind power’s lucrative production tax credit (PTC) to expire at the end of the year. Wind power is already substantially more expensive than conventional power, and without the PTC the retail price would rise still higher.

“Federal support of allegedly green energy policies such as the wind PTC and similar subsidies of solar power has indisputably scarred both the taxpayer and the environment,” said Jackie Moreau, an energy researcher at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The PTC is completing its twentieth year of funding, yet the results leave much to be desired. Higher electricity costs associated with wind power create a net harm on the economy, and the enormous upheaval of land and species has similarly harmed the environment.”

Moreau pointed out state programs to promote or require wind and solar power production are similarly harmful. 

“Those states that have rolled the dice on subsidized wind and solar power are left between an unforeseen rock and a hard place,” said Moreau, as efforts to please some environmental activist groups come at the expense of damaging the economy and angering other environmental groups.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.