Wind power is on the way in our very own Santa Barbara County. The first utility-scale renewable energy project is up for a decision before the Planning Commission on Tuesday. Pacific Renewable Energy Group, a subsidiary of Acciona USA (part of a larger Spanish company), has proposed a wind farm at a site in the hills near Lompoc. This wind farm will ultimately provide enough energy for about 40,000 homes, or about 10 percent of our county’s total electricity demand. The avoided carbon dioxide emissions are equivalent to replacing 380,000 incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent light bulbs every year.

Tam Hunt

Tam Hunt

The Community Environmental Council’s Fossil Free by ’33 has long highlighted the potential for wind power in our county, both onshore and offshore. Under the CEC’s regional energy blueprint, we project that wind power can provide the equivalent of all our county’s electricity demand by 2030 and about 20 percent of our county’s total energy demand — which includes petroleum, natural gas and electricity. Our blueprint also highlights the wind potential in this particular region, and we have concluded that this is indeed the best site for wind power in Santa Barbara County.

Even with our aggressive goals for renewable energy and energy efficiency, we carefully analyze the implications of every actual energy project before lending our support. We have followed the Lompoc wind project’s progress for three years and, after discussing the pros and cons of this project, our board of directors voted unanimously to endorse it. This is a first for CEC, but hopefully not the last time we are able to endorse a significant renewable energy project.

Megan Birney

Megan Birney

Over the last few years, we have highlighted the major problems facing us in the near future, including climate change, declining oil availability (“peak oil”), air pollution and national security concerns about increasing dependency on foreign fossil fuels. Any impacts from this wind farm project must be weighed against the larger trends we see. At the same time, this project — and others like it — offer significant opportunities for our region.

We are in a climate crisis that affects our weather, health, sea level, water supply, food production and biodiversity. The International Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report found that approximately 20 percent to 30 percent of species assessed were at increased risk of extinction if temperatures exceeded 1.5-2.5 degrees Celsius, and projected “significant extinctions” — 40 percent to 70 percent of species assessed — if average temperature increases exceeds 3.5 degrees Celsius. This emergency is much bigger than us and we must begin to think on a global scale if we have any hope of minimizing the degree and impacts of climate change.

Wind energy is a big part of the solution, and here in Santa Barbara County we have great potential to use wind energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. By utilizing this clean, renewable energy source, we can reduce air emissions like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. These air pollutants are detrimental to the health of California residents and can lead to numerous afflictions in including asthma, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Of no less importance, this project can have positive implications for the local economy. This one project will provide 50 to 100 construction jobs, lasting for one to two years, as well as 10 permanent jobs. It will also provide about $3 million in tax revenue each year for Santa Barbara County.

This project is not perfect by any means. As the environmental review notes, there are significant and unavoidable impacts, including likely bird and bat impacts, as well as visual impacts seen from Jalama Beach and San Miguelito Road. For the Planning Commission to approve this project, it will have to issue a statement of “over-riding considerations,” which explains that these impacts, while unavoidable, are acceptable considering the benefits of this project. Based on our analysis of the current state of our environment and economy, this is also our view. This project is far better than building new natural gas, coal or nuclear plants.

Regarding viewsheds, the location of the turbines has been set to minimize visual impacts; but we recognize that some parts can be seen. The turbines are unobtrusive from afar and we consider the viewshed impacts from Jalama and Miguelito Canyon Road acceptable, given the benefits of this project.

Bird and bat impacts, given the studies already completed or under way, are likely to be low compared to other wind power projects (one to two birds per turbine per year). This is the case because today’s large turbines spin quite slowly and have smooth cylindrical towers that are not suitable for bird perches. The site is also away from migratory bird corridors, and bird populations at the site are medium to low compared to surrounding areas. While any wildlife deaths or injuries are tragic, we believe the potential impacts from climate change and air pollution mentioned above outweigh these local impacts.

We urge all interested residents to come to Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting and make your voice heard.

— Tam Hunt is energy program director and an attorney for the Community Environmental Council, and is a lecturer in renewable energy law and policy at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. Click here for the CEC’s regional energy blueprint. Megan Birney is a senior energy program associate at the Community Environmental Council.